Humans could learn a lot from observing animal behaviour.
Like us, animals are capable of problem solving, empathising and communicating, according to Dr Ashley Ward.
And they have much to teach us about living together harmoniously.
Dr Ward is a professor of Animal Behaviour at the University of Sydney. His research focuses on the behaviour of fish, birds, krill and other mammals.
It’s been his lifelong passion, he tells ABC RN’s Late Night Live.
“When I was a child, I would be looking under logs, stones and in streams and ponds just to find any kind of animal to peer at. And that eventually, of course, became my career,” he says.
It has taken him all around the world. One highlight was a trip to the Azores, a group of islands in the North Atlantic, where he observed and swam with the world’s largest predator – sperm whales.
“This group of five sperm whales turned up, it was absolutely incredible. A large matriarch with potentially her daughter and … also her grandchildren,” he recalls.
“They started frolicking around us and it was absolutely spellbinding.”
There was also a dolphin with the pod of whales.
“These species occupy very different ecologies, they have different foods … [and] this particular dolphin had scoliosis, had a severely bent spine, and yet it was interacting very freely with the group of sperm whales,” he says.
While some animals are instinctively social creatures, staying with the herd is usually important for survival in the animal kingdom.
“If you were to go your own way every time danger threatened, then the only certain thing is that you would get eaten,” Dr Ward says.
“By using the wisdom of the crowd, the collective intelligence of the group, that’s an excellent way to actually solve the big problems in life.”
He points to birds as good example of social cohesion among animals.
For instance, Harris’s hawks look across the landscape for their next meal by standing on each other’s backs. The topmost bird can gain a better view of their surroundings to scout for prey and then they hunt together in groups.
And the V formation some birds create during flight helps them all to conserve energy, in the same way that cyclists draft behind one another on the road.
“Some birds will take that position for a period, and then they’ll swap out. But it’s not in any way enforced, they simply seem to opt to take that position, and then others replace them when they become tired,” he says.
“By doing this, they don’t save a huge amount of energy between [them] — five and 10 per cent of the energy perhaps they save [flying in a V formation] — but on a long migration, that can mean the difference between life and death.”
Other ways in which animals interact can provide inspiration for humans.
For example, when car manufacturer Nissan was working on their first generation of self-driving cars, developers turned to shoals of fish to try and replicate their collision avoidance techniques, he says.
“The animals are simply following a few basic rules … if you’re too close to your near neighbour, move apart; if you’re too far away from your near neighbour, move together. And if you’re the perfect sort of Goldilocks distance apart, then copy what [your neighbour is] doing,” he says.
He says Nissan realised that evolution had given these animals the perfect system for traffic.
“And so robotic cars, if they adopt these rules, can effectively move in the kind of perfection animals do, if done correctly,” he says.
Some animals, including elephants, appear to mourn death.
Dr Ward remembers a story he heard from a ranger in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Park about an elderly matriarch elephant making her way across the plains flanked by two members of her herd.
It was clear to the ranger, as well as the other elephants, that she was approaching her last days.
And when she died one evening, the elephants accompanying her, stayed with her body and covered it with branches.
“A few days later, the whole herd returned … and appeared to undertake some kind of solemn animal ceremony,” he says,
“It’s difficult to ascribe emotions to animals — we don’t know what they’re thinking — but there seems to be [a] sense in which they understand death and mourn.”
Another creature that has scientists debating its capability to show empathy is the rat.
Often rats are used as a byword for cunning and for dirtiness, but that reputation may not be deserved.
A study published in 2015 studied two cages with rats that were positioned side-by-side.
“One [cage] has a rat, which is delightfully happy, where it’s warm and it’s dry, and it’s got everything that a rat could possibly require,” he explains.
In the next cage, the rat is wet, cold and doesn’t have anything.
There’s an adjoining door between the cages, so the rat in the dry cage is able to open the door and offer his mate a safe haven.
“[That rat] can just sit there enjoying itself in its luxury cage and ignore the other, or it can open the other door,” he says.
In almost every experiment, the rat in the dry side of the cage opened the door and let the wet rat in, he says.
The researchers of the study suggest that this was an example of empathy.
“There were some opponents of this who said, quite correctly, we don’t know what the rat was thinking. We don’t know whether it’s empathy,” he says.
But Dr Ward would like to think it is.
“Although the debate goes on, I think one of the things that really convinced me was the fact that when the rat in the dry cage had previously had its own experience of being in that wet cage, after undergoing that deprivation, it was much quicker and much more likely to open the cage door to the wet rat,” he says.
It seemed to empathise, he says, even though often we can only ever speculate about an animal’s motivation to do anything.
ABC News, 12 April 2022