Why Animal Educators Are So Rare and Remarkable

Animals do all kinds of amazing things, and how they learn to do them has long puzzled scientists.

Some knowledge is inherited: monarch butterflies, for example, migrate from Mexico to Canada using a route map inscribed in their genes. Other species mimic skills and behaviors, like a gray cub watching his pack hunt an elk. And still others learn to survive by trial and error, such as the The crows of New Caledonia who have understood that pebbles are dropped into a jug cause the water level to rise.

But among nonhumans, the true teacher is a rare breed, with only a handful of species, such as certain birds, primates, and insects, succeeding.

For a long time, “there has been a real resistance to believing that animals teach, because that’s really one of the characteristics of humanity that makes us special,” says Lisa Rapaport, a behavioral ecologist at Clemson University. .

Biologists have also created a specific definition of what constitutes an animal educator: they must change their behavior in front of a student., without immediate benefit to themselves, and the student must show that they have acquired knowledge or skills, Rapaport says.

Here are some great animal teachers who make sure school is always in session.

When your food bites back

Sub-Saharan African meerkats live in social “crowds” of up to 30 animals, in which hands-on teaching is part of the job of parents and other adult helpers who teach the young collaboratively.

Various species of scorpions feature prominently on the meerkats’ menu, but their deadly sting means they require careful handling. This is why, at first, the parents deliver the dead arachnids to their newborns. As the pups grow, meerkat teachers make their lunchtime lessons progressively more difficult, such as removing the stingers from live scorpions to render them harmless and letting their youngster practice dispatching them.

As the puppies gain skills and confidence in handling scorpions, their teachers gradually bring them more able-bodied scorpions until the students have learned how to safely remove the stinger and kill prey for themselves. (See how meerkats defend their crowds against predators.)

Although adult meerkats spend time teaching that could be spent on other activities, it works to their advantage. Since many meerkats in a crowd are closely related, keeping more of the group safe and alive carries on family genes.

music lessons

Taking early learning to the extreme, these Australian birds begin teaching their young before birth. The superb fairy-wren mother sings to her eggs up to 30 times per hour, exposing the embryos to a secret musical password that is unique to each female. Once in the world, newborns will use the sound to ask mom and dad for food, who will also learn the melody.

In one study, Sonia Kleindorfer, a biologist at Flinders University in Adelaide, and her colleagues swapped eggs between nests of wild birds and found that the hatchlings produced the adoptive mother’s call that sang to them. , showing that young people have no genetics. understanding calls. (Read how a bird uses a tool to make music.)

There’s a good reason for these singing lessons: cuckoos often lay eggs in wrens’ nests so they can offload the burden of incubating and raising their own young, a phenomenon called parasitism. brood. But cuckoo parents do this too late for their embryos to learn the call, so only caring for the young who know the call ensures that the wrens don’t waste valuable time and food feeding imposters.

Show a friend the way

When a rock ant finds a new food source or nesting site, it leads another ant there with a technique called tandem running. The knowledgeable ant guides the novice along the course, stopping along the way so the student can memorize each landmark. The teacher relies on student feedback, which confirms when each lesson is learned; an antenna tap lets the teacher know it’s time to move on.

“The teacher ant gets another person to agree on a much better nesting site. This will benefit all ants in the colony and help them pass on their genes more abundantly to the next generation,” says Nigel Franks, Emeritus Professor of Biology at the University of Bristol in the UK, co-author of a study in 2006 documenting behavior – the first published evidence of a non-human animal teaching another.

Franks is currently experimenting with teaching robots to find out which aspects of ant education are most crucial for success.

Risky aquatic maneuvers

Depending on where they live, killer whales, or orcas, eat very different prey. In Norway, killer whales work together to herd schools of herring into dense clusters, then stun the fish with their tails before feasting. In Antarctica, they team up to wash Weddell seals off the ice and into the waiting jaws. Scientists believe that in some of these unique situations, parents teach their young to catch prey.

Off the coast of Patagonia, for example, some killer whales hunt baby sea lions on shore by intentionally beaching themselves. The adults show the youngsters how to perform this dangerous maneuver long before they begin to hunt, helping to push their pupils back into the water when needed. (Watch a video of this amazing beach hunting behavior.)

In Alaskan waters, killer whales have been observed training their young to capture prey in stages, first stunning seabirds with their flukes so the young can learn how to handle them and practice their own slapping technique.

These lessons are not just examples of teaching, but also of nurturing, which occurs when a group accumulates social knowledge and passes it on to the next generation, said Brian Skerry, National Geographic explorer and wildlife photographer.

“They not only teach their offspring the skills they will need to survive, but they teach them their age-old traditions, the things that matter to them.”

Foraging Masterclass

The golden lion tamarins of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest must undergo a masterclass in foraging that includes more than 150 different types of fruits, insects, tree frogs, lizards and other prey.

“If you’re a young child in the forest, where the hell do you put your hand to find something without being bitten or stung?” says Rapaport, who has studied teaching and learning in tamarins.

This is why adults use a “come and get it” call that first attracts young people for food distributions and then introduces them to increasingly difficult foraging situations, from recognizing a type of fruit to searching for prey in a hole in a tree.

“During the period that adults were engaging in this behavior, prey-finding success for children skyrocketed, so there is circumstantial evidence that it worked,” Rapaport says.

Adults were also more likely to offer new foods to their young, she says. “It told me that adults were paying attention to what kids were doing and not knowing.”

Rapaport also observed the adults performing what she believes to be an incredible trait in nonhuman teachers: focusing their energy on those who needed it most.

“We didn’t have the methodology to say unequivocally that they reserved teaching for children who learned slowly, but that was my impression,” she notes. “I wish someone would really look at this carefully.”

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