Eagle Huntress

Friday, April 18th, 2014

What is best in life?

The open steppe, a fleet horse, falcons at your wrist, and the wind in your hair.

So, 13-year-old Ashol-Pan might say — although the Mongolian girl hunts with an eagle:

Ashol-Pan 01

Ashol-Pan 02

Ashol-Pan 03

Ashol-Pan 04

Ashol-Pan 08

Ashol-Pan 09

Hawk, Dove, Bourgeois

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Game theorists have long turned to the classic hawk-dove game to study conflict:

‘Doves’ are individuals who never fight. If attacked, they run away. ‘Hawks’, on the other hand, are always ready for violence and will attack anybody who has something that they want. In a country populated by meek doves, the hawk strategy does very well. But as hawks become more numerous at the expense of doves, they spend more and more time fighting and killing each other.

There is, however, a simple modification of the hawk strategy that is superior to both hawks and doves: playing ‘bourgeois’. First, you declare a resource item — a herd, a piece of cropland — as your private property (hence the ‘bourgeois’ designation). Then you signal that you are willing to defend it no matter what it takes. Again, this is not rational in the narrow sense. You must be willing to escalate conflicts to the point where your life is at stake, even though your life is worth incomparably more than the disputed property. But again, in evolutionary terms, the strategy is a winner. While the hawks overreach, getting embroiled in self-destructive conflict, the bourgeois steadily divide the spoils among themselves, fighting only to defend their property against hawks. In the long run, the bourgeois always replace the hawks.

I’m no ornithologist, but there has to be a notoriously territorial bird we could use to extend the metaphor, doesn’t there?

Personality Predicts Social Learning

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Researchers conducted a three-year study of how personality interacts with social learning — in wild baboons in Namibia:

Carter and her colleagues had given all the baboons “personality tests” to measure two traits, boldness and anxiety. They assessed boldness by looking at a baboon’s response to a new food (such as a hard-boiled egg dyed green); the bolder the individual, the more time he or she spends inspecting a new food. They assessed anxiety by presenting the baboons with a taxidermied venomous snake; in this test, more anxious individuals spend more time investigating the potential threat. Boldness and anxiety are stable personality traits and are independent in baboons, meaning a bolder baboon is just as likely to be anxious as a shy baboon.

After figuring out where individual baboons fell on these two personality traits, the researchers looked at whether the traits were related to the time spent watching a demonstrator or the subsequent ability to then solve the task being demonstrated.

They found bolder and more anxious individuals were more likely to learn about a novel foraging task from another baboon — despite the fact that shy baboons watched the demonstrators just as much as bold baboons, and calm baboons paid even more attention to the demonstrators than anxious baboons. This means that an individual’s ability or interest in watching a demonstrator does not necessarily translate to then solving the task. All personality types seemed to collect social information, but bolder and more anxious baboons were better at using it.

Carter thinks that bold baboons may show more social learning not because they are smarter or better at learning this type of information, but because they are more willing to interact with something new. “I imagine that watching another individual manipulate a novel food requires less boldness than manipulating a novel food directly,” she says. “It’s likely the shy baboons were just too shy to handle the food, even after watching a demonstrator.”

Caribbean Reef Shark

Monday, March 17th, 2014

A scuba diver was about 70 feet down, in the Western Caribbean Sea, culling lion fish, when a Caribbean reef shark attacked — and just kept coming:

Yosemite Bears and Human Food

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Researchers performed isotope analysis of hair and bone samples to study Yosemite bears’ changing diets over the past century:

Yosemite National Park was established in 1890, and Hopkins obtained samples from bears killed between 1915 and 1919 to represent the earliest time period. In those early years, bears were attracted to garbage dumps in the park and were often killed when they became a nuisance. Visitors liked to see bears, however, and in 1923 the park began intentionally feeding bears where visitors could watch them. The last artificial feeding area closed in 1971. There was also a fish hatchery in Yosemite Valley, from 1927 to 1956, where bears once helped themselves to fresh trout from the holding tanks. But closing the hatchery and the feeding areas didn’t stop bears from eating human food.

“The bears just went back to the campgrounds and hotels and continued to find human food,” Hopkins said.

The average figures for the proportion of human food in bear diets during the four time periods in the study were 13 percent for the period from 1915 to 1919; 27 percent for 1928 to 1939; 35 percent for 1975 to 1985; and 13 percent again for 2001 to 2007.

These results are based on a kind of chemical forensics in which Koch’s lab specializes. Isotopic analysis of an animal’s tissues can yield clues to its diet because of natural variability in the abundance of rare isotopes of elements such as carbon and nitrogen. Isotope ratios (the ratio of carbon-13 to carbon-12, for example) are different in human foods than in the wild plants and animals that black bears naturally eat in Yosemite, partly due to the large amounts of meat and corn-based foods in our diets.

In order to analyze the data from Yosemite bears that ate a mixture of human and natural foods, Hopkins had to get samples from bears that did not eat any human food, and he had to track down samples of the non-native trout that had been raised in the hatchery. He also needed data representing a 100 percent human food diet, for which he turned to the Smithsonian Institution for samples of human hair from different periods over the past century.

“He searched far and wide to get the collection of samples we analyzed, and that collection made the study powerful enough to answer the question of how management practices affect bear diets,” Koch said.

According to Hopkins, the key to managing bear problems is to prevent bears from becoming conditioned to eat human food in the first place.

Moby Dick’s Counter-Attack

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Moby Dick is usually regarded as a novel of deep symbolism, but, Randall Collins notes, it is built on a practical observation:

Herman Melville, through his experiences on whaling ships, recognized that a harpooned whale essentially kills itself. By running away, the whale dragged a boat-load of sailors for several miles until the whale was exhausted, and this eventually allowed the harpooner to close in and finish it off. A whale is much bigger and stronger than its pursuers; if it fought them head-to-head in the water it would win. But whales are not belligerent animals, and they are frightened, and this is what drags them to their death.

Moby Dick is a thought-experiment. Melville imagines what it would be like if a whale were as intelligent as a human. Instead of running away it would turn and fight. Moby Dick, the white whale, is scarred with harpoons still tangled on his back; these are wounds or trophies from previous encounters with humans, but he always turned and wrecked the harpooners’ boats. As literary critics have generally recognized, he is white to indicate he is nearly human. But no one in the novel explicitly recognizes wherein his humanness lies — that he recognizes the tactic humans rely on to kill whales. The limits of humans’ perceptiveness of animals come out in their seeing Moby Dick only as supernatural or diabolical (and in the case of the critics, as symbolic). Moby Dick is not necessarily malevolent, but he is intelligent enough to see that running away will kill him, and that his only chance is to turn and counter-attack.

In this respect, Moby Dick also illustrates a main principle of human-on-human conflict. Winning a fight generally begins with establishing emotional dominance; and most of the physical damage occurs after one side emotionally dominates the other (Collins, 2008, Violence: A Macro-Sociological Theory).

The Unfortunately Innate Nature of Intelligence

Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

Anyone having experience with dogs knows that these admirable creatures differ in intelligence, Fred Reed notes:

Border Collies are simply smarter than pit bulls. Since there is no political penalty for noticing this, it is widely noticed and not disputed.

Poor, naive Fred Reed hasn’t witnessed just such a dog-breed discussion as it turned political. I suppose he isn’t Facebook-friends with the “right” people.

Leopard on the Loose in Hospital

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

A leopard made its way into the Meerut Cantonment Hospital in Uttar Pradesh, India on Sunday, terrifying patients and staff for 12 hours before wounding a police officer after it smashed its way through a window and fled.

Leopard Jumping Between Buildings in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, India

There Are Whales Alive Today Who Were Born Before Moby Dick Was Written

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Some of the bowhead whales in the icy waters off of Alaska today are over 200 years old — meaning they were born before Moby Dick was written:

Bowheads seem to be recovering from the harvest of Yankee commercial whaling from 1848 to 1915, which wiped out all but 1,000 or so animals. Because the creatures can live longer than 200 years — a fact George discovered when he found an old stone harpoon point in a whale — some of the bowheads alive today may have themselves dodged the barbed steel points of the Yankee whalers.

Animal shows aren’t about animals

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Animal shows are far more about us than they are about the animals, Adam Curtis contends:

Over the past thirty years the wildlife programme has been dominant, led by David Attenborough. The story these programmes tell is a deeply conservative one. The central, natural, unit that the films portray is the family — and they tend to follow that social unit through repeated cycles of birth, discovery, danger and tragedy — followed by the birth of the next generation who will repeat the cycle.

The backdrop to this story is the endless repetition of the seasons — “spring returns and the first green shoots force their way through the melting snows” — which gives the cycle a natural inevitability that reflects and echoes back to us the static conservatism of our age.

But it wasn’t always like this — and for Christmas I want to tell the story of the far more larky and chaotic age of animal programmes that came before in the 1970s and early 1980s.

It is The Age of the Talented Pet. It was a way of portraying animals on TV that was not only very funny — but was also equally a powerful ideological expression of the politics and aspirations of the time. I don’t think this has been properly recognised and I would like to set the record straight.


The problem was that by the end of the 1960s more and more ordinary people didn’t want to be patronised by the upper middle class elites in Britain and kept in their place. They didn’t want to be told what was the right way to think and behave — because that somehow implied that the elites knew what was right, and so were cleverer than everyone else.

This rebellious feeling rose up among many ordinary people in the 1970s and would later be co-opted by the right under the term “aspirational”. At its heart was a conviction among those people that they were just as clever as the patronising elites.

And as this feeling rose up so did a new type of animal programme on British television. Talented pets were animals who wanted to be as clever as their owners and took great delight in showing that they could do many of the things that humans could — like talk or sing or dance or even skateboard.


From one perspective these short films — which were predominantly made by the programmes Nationwide and That’s Life — can be seen as deeply patronising to the owners of the animals. But they didn’t patronise the animals — what comes over in most of them is the sheer joy and liberation that the animals clearly feel as they behave in sometimes the silliest ways — just like humans.


But as well as being odd expressions of the new aspirations of the time, these films also express the sheer anarchic silliness of the late 1970s and early 80s.

I think that that silliness was one of the products of the economic collapse and political chaos of the post-war planned society — a free-wheeling individualism born out of a general realisation that the elites who were in charge didn’t have a clue any longer about what was going on. And it was by no means inevitable that the right would grab hold of that individualism. If the left had had the imagination and courage — they too could have taken hold of it and steered Britain in a completely different direction.


Then — in the 1980s — the talented pets receded in TV. They still exist, like Pudsey the dancing dog and Simba from Top Dog model, but their place at the top table of TV culture was taken by the epic, conservative moral stories of the wildlife programmes and series.

We have lived with that portrayal of animals for thirty years, mixed in with programmes like When Animals Attack — that was started by Fox TV in the 1990s, that also has an implicit conservative message — the eternal law of the jungle.

But maybe that age is coming to an end as the boosters for our conservative age sound ever more uncertain. And at the same time the animal programming on the BBC is weakening and being challenged by the kingdom of Youtube with its wonderful range of stupid animals doing very silly things.

If animals on TV are the innocent ideological expressions of our age — maybe it is possible to look to the sneezing panda and its allied operatives on Youtube as the harbingers of what is to come. The return of the revolutionary libertarianism that was glimpsed with the joyous, anarchic talented pets of the late 1970s, before that moment of silly freedom was co-opted by the forces of reaction and market conservatism.

The original post is chock-full of animal videos.

Are Humans Hardwired to Detect Snakes?

Friday, December 6th, 2013

Lynne Isbell was running through a glade in Kenya back in 1992, when she spotted a cobra. She froze in her tracks before she realized what she’d seen. Isbell is an anthropologist and behavioral ecologist at the University of California, Davis, and she believes that her life-saving reaction was the result of millions of years of evolution:

You can see large carnivores from afar, but the same is not always true for snakes: To pick out camouflaged snakes, you need great close-range vision. So to spot snakes better, primates evolved to have color vision and forward-facing eyes, which improves depth perception and allows 3D vision. They also evolved to have the best visual acuity among mammals, Isbell said. These visual features, which required the enlargement of some parts of the brain, were co-opted for other purposes, such as social interactions and reaching and grasping for objects.

Interestingly, the evolutionary interaction between snakes and mammals was not a one-way street, according to the snake detection theory. As mammals became better able to evade snakes — which till this point relied on squeezing their prey to death — the reptiles needed a new, easier way to kill. So they evolved venom. In response, primates evolved even better vision. Indeed, primates that live in areas without venomous snakes, such as on Madagascar, have poorer vision than other primates.

For the snake detection theory to be true, primates would have to be amazing snake detectors. And there is some research that appears to support this idea.

For example, a 1993 study by Arne Öhman, a psychologist at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, showed that people are able to visually detect snakes before they’re even consciously aware of the reptile, just as Isbell learned firsthand.

More recently, Öhman and his colleagues compared how quickly people detected snakes and spiders. Based on Isbell’s snake detection theory, they predicted that participants would detect snakes more rapidly than spiders because the arachnids were historically less of a threat to primates — and this is exactly what they found. They also discovered that snakes are more distracting than spiders, and concluded that “attending to snakes might constitute an evolutionary adaptation.”

Hollywood Cougar

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

Biologist Miguel Ordenana found a photo of a mountain lion captured by a camera trap set up in Griffith Park in Hollywood. Since then, National Geographic wildlife photographer Steve Winter has spent a year waiting for the perfect shot of the animal:

Cougar Hollywood Sign


Saturday, November 2nd, 2013

Tilikum, an adult male orca, or killer whale, killed his third human victim, trainer Dawn Brancheau, a few years ago. I remember finding it odd that he wasn’t kept away from people after killing the first two. Then, he went back to work after killing a third.

Blackfish PosterBlackfish takes a fascinating look at Tilikum and other killer whales in captivity.

I was under the vague impression that most marine mammals in captivity were either rescued or born in captivity. Tilikum was captured off the east coast of Iceland in November of 1983, at about three years of age. Blackfish includes some powerful footage of whalers in the 1970s, before Tilikum’s time, driving a pod of orcas into shallow water, separating the young from their mothers, and then loading them aboard, while the mothers stay just outside the nets and wail. The salty old sea dog they interview seems shaken and distraught about what he did.

From there, Tilikum ended up at the not-so-prestigious Sealand of the Pacific, in British Columbia, where he spent his nights in a tiny “holding module” with two older, female whales — who didn’t seem to like him. On February 21, 1991, trainer Keltie Byrne slipped into the tank, and the three whales drowned her, in front of the audience. Blackfish presents this as Tilikum’s doing. Sealand shut down — apparently with no inquest into the death — and Tilikum moved to SeaWorld Orlando, where the trainers were told he was not responsible for the death at Sealand. (If he was, this is sinister. If he wasn’t…)

Years later, in 1999, a man’s body was found, dead and nude, draped over Tilikum’s back. The 27-year-old man, Daniel P. Dukes, apparently snuck into the tank after hours. (Yeah, he was disturbed.) It’s hard to blame the whale for that one, but… the man’s genitals were ripped off. Also, one of the trainers interviewed seemed to think that Tilikum had stripped the man and was quite consciously parading him about when the morning crew showed up.

Less than a year later, he killed trainer Dawn Brancheau after a “Dine with Shamu” show. Now, when a trainer gets killed by a killer whale, that seems like an occupational hazard, but both SeaWorld and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) treated it as if it needed some explanation. SeaWorld tried to blame the trainer — for having a ponytail, which might have got caught in Tilikum’s teeth — and OSHA blamed SeaWorld for “safety violations”, leading to their current practice of keeping the trainers away from the whales, behind a barrier.

Can’t we accept that working with killer whales is dangerous? When your human co-workers are cranky, they raise their voice, say something unkind, maybe slam a coffee mug on the meeting table. When your multi-ton carnivorous co-workers are cranky, they kill you. The trainers may be a bit deluded about their special relationship with the animals they train, but who knows more about the animals than they do?

Well, it turns out that SeaWorld seems to know a lot more than it shares with trainers and the public about killer whale attacks. Some examples:

  • On June 12, 1999, 22-year-old Kasatka grabbed her trainer Ken Peters by the leg and attempted to throw him from the pool during a public show at SeaWorld San Diego.
  • On July 8, 2002, a trainer by the name of Tamaree was hospitalized for a broken arm and several minor injuries after an incident occurred in Shamu Stadium at SeaWorld Florida. The 28-year-old trainer was doing poolside work with two of the park’s orcas, Orkid and Splash. “She was playing with the whales, talking to them… the next thing we know, as it appears from the video, she was pulled into the water,” said SeaWorld spokesperson Darla Davis. Visitor video shows that the trainer was pulled in by her foot after the female Orkid grabbed a hold of it during the session. Both Orkid and Splash continuously pulled the trainer under as she screamed for help. A fellow trainer made the decision to make as if to let in a more dominate female into the pool. Orkid who was holding the trainer at the time dropped her and Tamaree was able to escape. Park officials stated that the trainer exited the pool without assistance and was taken to a local hospital, where a pin was needed to reset her arm.
  • In late July 2004, during a show at the SeaWorld park in San Antonio, Texas, a male orca named Kyuquot (nickname Ky) repeatedly jumped on top of his trainer, Steve Aibel, forcing him underwater and barred the trainer from escaping the water. After several minutes the trainer was able to calm the animal and he exited the pool unhurt. “Veterinarians believe the whale… felt threatened by the trainer, perhaps a result of the effects of adolescent hormones.”
  • On April 4, 2005, SeaWorld Florida trainer Sam Davis was repeatedly “bumped” by an 11-year-old male orca named Taku. The show continued uninterrupted but the trainer was later taken to Sand Lake Hospital for unspecified minor injuries and released the same day. Additional eyewitness account: “The trainer and Taku were about to slide on the slide out at the end of the show when Taku completely stopped and started “bumping” the trainer. The trainer was male and he finally swam out of the tank. I knew something was wrong because none of the whales except Kalina wanted to perform. Then they finally got Taku out to splash people at the end of the show, when this incident took place.”
  • On November 15, 2006, a SeaWorld California trainer was injured when the park’s 18-year-old female killer whale, Orkid, grabbed veteran trainer Brian Rokeach by the foot and pulled him to the bottom of the tank, refusing to release him for an extended period of time. Orkid released Rokeach only after heeding fellow trainer Kenneth Peters’s repeated attempts to call the animal’s attention back to the stage. Rokeach suffered a torn ligament in his ankle but was not taken to the hospital. In response to the incident, SeaWorld increased the number of trainers who must be available during performances and in water training to five staff members, but this was ineffective because a fortnight later trainer Kenneth Peters was involved in a similar incident with a different orca.[52][53]See next bullet for Peters attack.
  • On November 29, 2006, Kasatka, one of SeaWorld San Diego’s seven orcas, grabbed her trainer, Kenneth Peters, by the foot and dragged him to the bottom of the tank several times during an evening show at Shamu Stadium. The senior trainer barely escaped, after 9 terrifying minutes, when Kasatka released him. The whale chased and tried to grab him again, after he got out of the pool. This was the second documented incident of Kasatka attacking Peters and was the third most widely reported of all the SeaWorld incidents.

Conservation is Hard

Friday, October 11th, 2013

Conservation is hard, Greg Cochran notes — but so is driving a prey animal to extinction:

Even if the population as a whole would be better off if a given prey species persisted in fair numbers, any single individual would benefit from cheating — even from eating the very last mammoth.

More complicated societies, with private property and draconian laws against poaching, do better, but even they don’t show much success in preserving a tasty prey species over the long haul. Considers the aurochs, the wild ancestor of the cow. The Indian version seems to have been wiped out 4–5,000 years ago. The Eurasian version was still common in Roman times, but was rare by the 13th century, surviving only in Poland. Theoretically, only members of the Piast dynasty could hunt aurochsen — but they still went extinct in 1627.

How then did edible species survive in pre-state societies? I can think of several ways in which some species managed to survive voracious humans, but none of them involve green intent.

First you have to realize that driving a prey species to extinction is unusual: it doesn’t happen often with normal predators. Specialized predators obviously can’t do it — when their prey gets scarce, so do they. On the other hand, unspecialized predators generally won’t be as efficient. On the gripping hand, at any given moment, a predator and its prey have been co-evolving (and co-existing) for millions of years. Both are highly optimized — which means that further improvements would be difficult — and it shouldn’t easy for the predator to suddenly develop a crushing superiority. This argument doesn’t apply to newly introduced predators, of course.

Mass extinction is even less likely, because even an unspecialized predator should become rare when the total amount of prey (all relevant species) goes way down.. Unless this potent predator is really an omnivore — but that means even less specialization in predation. Omnivores (bears, for example) usually aren’t that effective.

If we go back far enough, protohumans simply weren’t very good hunters, because they weren’t smart. Lions manage to be pretty good predators without being particularly smart, but humans, who don’t have impressive natural armament, have to succeed in hunting through tools and social cooperation. They were probably death on turtles early on, but in general early humans advanced slowly, giving prey species lots of time to adapt — African and Eurasian species, that is.

The pace of innovation gradually increased, and I can think of some species in Africa and Eurasia that were probably ganked by humans a long time ago — but it wasn’t dramatic. Progress in hunting, new tactics and weapons, was still slow enough to allow adaptive response in prey species. Consider the Neanderthals: I can’t think of a single species they wiped out. Wimps.

By the Upper Paleolithic, modern humans were innovating much more rapidly, and human-driven extinction starts to become really important. It wasn’t just better hunting that mattered. Better food preparation — getting more out of each carcass — increased human density, and thus hunting intensity. You might think that greater efficiency would mean that we didn’t need to bring down as many beasts — not so, in a Malthusian world.

Developing new ways of gathering food other than hunting, such as fishing and better preparation of plant foods, meant that human density could stay high even as mammal biomass crashed. Innovations in clothing and housing let people colonize the high Arctic, and eventually the Americas. Invention of boats and rafts led to the colonization of Australia and numerous islands.

We were omnivores and generalists: population collapse of prey species couldn’t stop us. We could kill anything — but the biggest threat of extinction was to large animals, which were worth a lot (mucho calories for the tribe) and bred slowly. Worst off were those animals that had never had a chance to adapt to humans.

There were some modifying factors. It probably wasn’t just adaptation to humans that saved much of the African megafauna: African pathogens may have played a role too, keeping human numbers down and possibly even creating natural game preserves (I’m thinking of sleeping sickness). Contrariwise, Australia and the Americas were almost disease-free, as far as humans were concerned.

War is bad for us, good for our prey. The no-man’s land between hostile tribes is oddly full of game, since people are afraid to go there. In much the same way, rabbits flourished next to the Berlin Wall, while Asiatic black bears and musk deer inhabit the Korean DMZ.

Toad vs Bat

Friday, October 4th, 2013

A park ranger at Peru’s Cerros de Amotape National Park spotted a bat flying into a cane toad’s open mouth:

Cane Toad with Bat in Mouth in Peru's Cerros de Amotape National Park

The toad failed to swallow the bat whole, and it flew away.