For corals, gardening’s a matter of life and death. Corals compete with algal seaweeds for space, and many types of seaweed release chemicals that are toxic to corals, act as carriers for coral diseases and boost the growth of dangerous microbes. These dangers require close contact—the seaweed poisons won’t diffuse through the water, so they need to be applied to the corals directly. And that gives the corals an opportunity to save themselves. When they sense encroaching seaweed, they call for help.
Danielle Dixson and Mark Hay from the Georgia Institute of Technology have found that when Acropora corals detect the chemical signatures of seaweed, they release an odour that summons two gardeners – the broad-barred goby and redhead goby. These small fish save the corals by eating the toxic competitors. In return, one of them stores the seaweed poisons in its own flesh, becoming better defended against its own enemies.
If there’s any molecule that is consistently viewed through rose-tinted glasses, it’s oxytocin. This simple hormone has earned misleading but charmingly alliterative nicknames like “hug hormone”, “cuddle chemical” and “moral molecule”. Writers love to claim, to the point of absurdity, that oxytocin increases trust, generosity, cooperation and empathy, among a slew of other virtues.
But while these grandiose claims take centre-stage, a lot of careful science plods on in the background. And it shows that oxytocin affects our social interactions in both positive and negative ways, depending on the situation we’re in, or our personality and disposition. It can fuel conformity as well as trust, envy as well as generosity, and favouritism as well as cooperation. If we sniff the stuff, we might, for example, become more cooperative towards people we know, but less so towards strangers.
These lines of evidence might seem contradictory, but only if we hold the naive view that oxytocin is a chemical force for good. Instead, many scientists have suggested that, rather than some positive panacea, it’s more of a general social substance. It directs our attention towards socially relevant information – everything from facial expressions to posture – or drives us to seek out social interactions.
Now, Adam Reddon from McMaster University has found more evidence to support this idea by studying the daffodil cichlid, a beautiful African fish. When he injected them with isotocin – the fish version of oxytocin – he found that they became more responsive to social information. They were more sensitive to an opponent’s size before a fight, and they behaved more submissively when they themselves were challenged.
Our lives are governed by both fast and slow – by quick, intuitive decisions based on our gut feelings; and by deliberate, ponderous ones based on careful reflection. How do these varying speeds affect our choices? Consider the many situations when we must put our own self-interest against the public good, from giving to charity to paying out taxes. Are we naturally prone to selfishness, behaving altruistically only through slow acts of self-control? Or do we intuitively reveal our better angels, giving way to self-interest as we take time to think?
According to David Rand from Harvard University, it’s the latter. Through a series of experiments, he has found that, on average, people behave more selflessly if they make decisions quickly and intuitively. If they take time to weigh things up, cooperation gives way to selfishness. The title of his paper – “Spontaneous giving and calculated greed” – says it all.
Insects have been around for almost 400 million years. That’s plenty of time for evolution to fashion countless horrific deaths for them. Case in point: some insects die because a little worm vomits glowing bacteria inside their bodies.
The worm is Heterorhabditis bacteriophora, a microscopic creature used by gardeners the world over to control insect pests. Its accomplice-in-insecticide is a shiny bacterium called Photorhabdus luminescens, which only lives in the worm’s guts.
When the worm infiltrates an insect, it vomits out the bacteria. These reproduce madly and produce toxins that kill the insect, converting its fallen cells into nutrients that nourish the worm. The bacteria also make amino acids that the worm needs to reproduce, and antibiotics that kill other bacteria trying to colonise the insect. (In the US Civil war, soldiers were sometimes contaminated with P.luminescens, which gave their wounds a mysterious blue shine and protected them from blood poisoning – they called it the “angel’s glow”.)
Many insects eat plants, but some plants can turn the tables on their would-be diners. The pitcher plants are among several groups that can capture insects and digest their flesh. And one species – the fanged pitcher plant – goes even further. It digests insects with insects.
There are around 120 species of pitcher plants and all of them have large leaves that fold to produce fluid-filled traps. The rims of the pitchers are usually extremely slippery, and insects that wander by lose their foothold and fall into the pool of fluid within. There, they drown and are digested by the plant.
The fanged pitcher is unusual. Its rim lacks the usual waxy layer and is less slippery than those of its cousins. And it’s the only species that recruits ants. The base of each pitcher contains a swollen tendril that houses ants of the species Camponotus shcmitzi. These insects are permanent residents; they’ve never been seen in any other plant.
In the coastal waters of Laguna, Brazil, a shoal of mullet is in serious trouble. Two of the most intelligent species on the planet – humans and bottlenose dolphins – are conspiring to kill them. The dolphins drive the mullet towards the fishermen, who stand waist-deep in water holding nets. The humans cannot see the fish through the turbid water. They must wait for their accomplices.
As the fish approach, the dolphins signal to the humans by rolling at the surface, or slapping the water with their heads or tails. The nets are cast, and the mullet are snared. Some manage to escape, but in breaking formation, they are easy prey for the dolphins.
According to town records, this alliance began in 1847, and involves at least three generations of both humans and dolphins. Today, there are around 55 dolphins in the neighbourhood, and around 45 per cent of them interact with the fishermen.
Now, Fabio Daura-Jorge from the Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil studied Laguna’s dolphins to learn how their unusual collaboration has shaped their social networks. He spent two years taking photographs of the local dolphins, and noting where they travelled and who they were associated with. As is typical for bottlenose dolphins, the Laguna individuals formed a ‘fission-fusion’ society – they all belonged to the same large group, but they had specific ‘friends’ whom they would spend more time with.
The dolphins roughly split into two separate groups, based on their tendency to hunt with humans. Those that co-operated with the fishermen were more likely to spend time with each other than the uncooperative individuals. Likewise, the uncooperative dolphins showed a tendency to stick to their own clique.
One individual even seemed to act as a “social broker”, and spent time with individuals from both groups.
Of the two groups, the human-helpers seemed to form stronger social ties. It is not clear if helping humans means they spend more time together, or vice versa. But certainly, their close associations increase the odds that one dolphin will learn the hunting technique from its peers.
This fits with what we know about bottlenose dolphins. They are extremely intelligent animals and different populations have developed their own quirky foraging traditions by learning from one another. Some use sponges to guard their snouts when they root about the ocean floor for food. Others can prepare a cuttlefish meal by sequentially killing and stripping them.
Daura-Jorge now wants to understand why only some of the dolphins help the fishermen, given that doing so clearly provides them with benefits, and all of them have the opportunity to help. By analysing the dolphins’ genes, he hopes to piece together their family trees, and work out if mothers pass on the behaviour to their calves.
Reference: Daura-Jorge, Cantor, Ingram, Lusseau & Simoes-Lopes. 2012. The structure of a bottlenose dolphin society is coupled to a unique foraging cooperation with artisanal fishermen. Biology Letters http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2012.0174
Bonus: There are several cases around the world where dolphins feed on the discarded remains of fish thrown away by humans. But the Laguna animals do far more than that – the fisherman wouldn’t catch any fish at all without their help. A similar alliance takes place half a world away in Burma, where Irrawaddy dolphins also fish cooperatively with humans.
More on dolphin behaviour:
“God save thee, ocean sunfish
From the fiends that plague thee thus
Why look’st thou so? With thy large shoals,
Thou fed the albatross.”
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge, sort of.
Albatrosses are superb long-distance fliers that can scour vast tracts of ocean in search of food. But sometimes, food comes to them. In July 2010, Tazuko Abe from Hokkaido University found albatrosses cleaning a school of ocean sunfish, basking at the surface of the western Pacific Ocean.
The ocean sunfish is a truly bizarre animal. It looks like someone cut the head off a much bigger fish and strapped fins to it. It’s the largest of the bony fish*. The biggest one ever found was 2.7 metres in length and weighed 2.3 tonnes. The youngsters, of course, are much smaller. The ones that Abe saw on his research cruise were just 40 centimetres long. There were at least 57 of them, each turned on its side so its broad flank faced the water surface.
The basking shoals were attending a sort of sunfish spa. The fish were infested with parasites. Pennella, a long scarlet relative of shrimp and crabs, was embedded headfirst in the flesh beneath their fins, busily sucking their blood. But not for long – black-footed and Laysan albatrosses were attracted to the shoal and picked the Pennella off their bodies. In some cases, the sunfish seems to be courting the birds, following them around and swimming sideways next to them.
Ocean sunfish live throughout the oceans but they often spend time at the surface before diving to the depths. Some scientists think that they’re absorbing heat from the sun, but it’s possible that they could also be looking for a spot of personal hygiene.
These fish can play host to at least 50 species of parasites, and they often have considerable numbers on their large bodies. Many ocean animals rely on cleaner fish or cleaner shrimp to rid them of parasites. It’s possible that albatrosses might fulfil the same role for ocean sunfish.
Of course, the association might have been a one-off. However, there are other reports of seabirds such as shearwaters and albatrosses flocking around schools of basking sunfish. This instance stands out only because Abe has photographic evidence that they were actually parasites. As he rightly points out, such events would be difficult to spot among the vastness of the open ocean.
* Fish have skeletons that are either made of cartilage, as in sharks and rays, or bone, as in all the others.
Reference: Abe, Sekiguchi, Onishi, Muramatsu & Kamito. 2011. Observations on a school of ocean sunfish and evidence for a symbiotic cleaning association with albatrosses. Marine Biology http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00227-011-1873-6
In the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, 150 or so British troops defended a mission station against thousands of Zulu warriors. At the Battle of Thermopylae, around 7,000 Greeks successfully held back a Persian army of hundreds of thousands for seven days. Human history has many examples of a small force defeating or holding their own against a much larger one.
Among animals too, the underdogs often become the victors. One such example exists in the rainforests of Panama. There, capuchin monkeys live in large groups, each with its own territory. The monkeys often invade each other’s land. Numbers provide an obvious advantage in such conflicts, but small groups can often successfully defend their territory against big ones. Unlike human underdogs, they don’t win because of superior tactics or weapons. They win because their rivals are full of deserters.
You enter a room with two cages. One contains a friend, who is clearly distressed. The other contains a bar of chocolate, which clearly isn’t. What do you do? While a few people would probably go for the chocolate first (and you know who you are), most would choose to free the friend. And so, it seems, would a rat.
Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal from the University of Chicago found that rats will quickly learn to free a trapped cage-mate, even when they get nothing in return, or when there’s a tasty chocolate distraction around. Bartal thinks that the rats conduct their prison breaks because they empathise with one another. This ability to understand and share the feelings of another individual is found in humans, apes, elephants, dolphins and other intelligent animals. It seems that rats belong in this club too.
They came to America and found a nation overflowing with calories. Carbohydrate-rich fast food was available on every corner, and with little competition for it, the migrants ate their fill. Soon, they started spreading throughout this new land of opportunity. They are red imported fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) and their invasion is well underway.
The fire ant is an international pest. It devastates native ants, shorts out electrical equipment, damages crops, and inflicts painful stings. It hails from Argentina, but it was carried to the United States aboard cargo ships that docked at a port in Alabama. That was in the 1930s; since then, this invader has spread throughout the southern states, from California to Florida. The country spends over a billion dollars every year in attempts to stem the invasion.
Now, Shawn Wilder from Texas A&M University has found that their remarkable invasion has been driven by partnerships with local insects. The fire ants run a protection racket for aphids and other bugs, defending them from other attackers. In return, they get honeydew, a sweet nutritious liquid that the bugs excrete, after they suck the juices of plants. They are both farmers and bodyguards.