animal cruel lie penguin biology cover

Animal villains

Who said animals don’t lie?

I know a lady, who says she prefers animal to human company, because animals don’t lie or commit crimes. Even her dog, she claims, admits with a guilty demeanour if it has done anything naughty.

Being a scientist, I was naturally a bit skeptical on hearing this and wondered whether there was some truth in what the lady claimed. Sure, most humans know how to lie and some cheat or deliberately give false information. One can hide one’s anger behind a smile, or fake cheerfulness and the shapely body of many a film star is not always as natural a product as one is made to believe. Even the words “everything is all right now” may mean that real trouble is only just to begin.

A bird faking a broken wing to lure the predator away from the nest-site, the male iguana lizard that erects the dorsal crest of spines and inflates a throaty fold to look more imposing than its neighbour – are they not, in reality, sending false, deceptive signals? There is a whole science devoted to ‘dishonest signals’ and Amotz ZAHAVI is one of the most-cited authors in this field of scientific inquiry. If you are inclined to say “Yes, but…”, think of my next example of a lying animal.

The female polecat, once mated, loses all interest in sex, but she wants to keep her mate, be it for comfort, support, or defence. So she uses behavioural, visual, and even odoriferous signals to let the male know she is willing to copulate. Naturally the male sticks around, but the moment he becomes ‘serious’, she’ll bite him away. So, on the one hand she calls him, but when he does arrive, she doesn’t want him to come too close. An even better or convincing case of an animal lying for a selfish purpose has been described in chimpanzees. A chimp that ‘discovered’ some bananas, placed into the enclosure by a scientist, did not right away go and fetch the tasty morsel, but looked around and then led the other chimps hundreds of metres away to a different part of the enclosure. She then carefully returned alone via a detour to the “banana spot” to have the food for herself.

A case of deliberate, planned deception? A fraudulent animal? An animal villain? Well, there’s worse to come, for penguin society knows even murderers – and they usually get away with their crime. Before penguins on an ice flow or at the edge of a cliff take a jump into the icy water, they usually hesitate and waddle impatiently up and down. They have good reason to behave like this, for in the deep, dark water, danger lurks: hungry leopard seals, a killer whale in search of food perhaps, and a penguin life is gone. No wonder penguins are cautious when it comes to taking the jump. However, for some the wait can be too long and (reported by several witnesses, but disputed by some penguin lovers) it has been reported that penguin rowdies may simply shove one of them over the edge. They then peer curiously over the edge of the ice or cliff to see whether the involuntary diver has survived or whether a big splash, a bit of blood, and some stubby feathers are all that remains of the one that has been sacrificed. In that latter scenario the murderous penguins gladly accept their cold feet and a longer wait; that is until they team up again and throw another test penguin into the water.

Well, is my lady friend now correct and are animals really so much more honest than humans? For the time being the case is adjourned.

animal cruel lie penguin biology cover

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2015.
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