Animal Friends and Enemies

Ed Raymond

From Carnivorous Mighty Mites To Vegetarian Monsters
When our spacecraft Voyager 1 took pictures of earth from four billion miles away in 1990, scientist Carl Sagan looked at the pictures and described the image in his book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space: “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us….Every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” Just maybe we should continue to diligently examine the living—and dead—things that are on this “mote of dust.”  The largest land animal that lived on earth—so far—was the titanosaur Argentinoaurus huinculensis weighing about 55 tons and stretching out to 130 feet. But all the huge dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago after a cataclysm. Maybe a bigger one’s bones will be found around the corner.  Last week a soybean farmer in Michigan ran into the body parts of a woolly mammoth while plowing. The head and those long distinctive tusks were still intact. Experts estimate the animal died about 10,000 years at the age of about 40. It’s possible our ancestors did him in.
One of the smallest animals is the face mite, now finding housing in your hair follicles all over your body. Mites give many people the creepy crawlies, even if a dozen can do the chicken on the head of a pin. We have discovered only two kinds of face mites so far, one being a resident on all human beings. They come out of the follicles at night to mate, perhaps following some of the same instincts as their hosts. The live only a few weeks as adults, gorging themselves on body “stuff.” They lack an anus, so when they fill up on feces, they die—and decompose all over your face and body. It’s a good thing we have poor eyesight and other weak senses. Like all those billions of bacteria in the gut, we tend to ignore small things. There are  tiny aquatic mites that exist by the thousands in a cubic meter of water and are often found in drinking water. I wonder what water tastes like without them. Mites live happily in some cheeses, doing the same things we do in our split levels—eating, tunneling, excreting, and making little mites. My favorites are Roquefort and sharp cheddar.

Hearty Titans And Itsy-Bitsy Vampires

The blue whale is the largest mammal on earth at 110 feet long and hits the scales at about 210 tons. The heart alone weighs 1,300 pounds and the digestive system makes 100 gallons of whale milk a day for its young. African elephants are midgets at a maximum of about 12 tons. So out of our thousands of species, what is the mass killer of the humans that are killed each year by species on earth? Sorry to say, other humans kill 1.6 million of their own species in an average year, so we are the most dangerous to our friends and enemies who have 100% of our genes. In the United States alone, about 40,000 will be killed and over 100,000 wounded in 2015 by firearms. In the last 1,004 days we have had 994 mass killings (four or more for each incident), killing 1,260 and wounding 3,606.The second most dangerous creature to humans is the mosquito, knocking off an average of 750,000 of us during a year. They carry all those deadly infectious diseases. Much to my surprise, the third most dangerous species to us are freshwater snails. They infect us with schistosomiasis, a parasitic disease which can be quite deadly. Poisonous snakes kill 94,000 while dogs kill 61,000, mainly due to the spread of rabies through bites. Scorpions also use poison to kill 3,250 of us.  Crocodiles kill about 1,000 while elephants get even by killing about 300. Elephants occasionally kill their trainers if they are mean or if they are interrupted at meal time. They can hold a grudge for a long time because they have excellent memories. Shark attacks make headlines and great photos but only three people were killed by them in 2014. Jellyfish kill ten times that number. And then we have the pesky sand fly, a 1/8 inch bug that lives in 90 countries. It carries a parasitic, flesh-rotting, sometimes fatal disease called leishmaniasis which is easily contracted because there are billions of sand flies. The bites cause open sores that often lead to other health problems.

By The Way, We Don’t Have The Largest Brains—And We Tend To Not Use Them Daily

There is a fascinating review of two books in the latest New York Book Review called “The Amazing Inner Lives of Animals” which describes the cultural lives of whales and dolphins and what large animals think and feel. As Yogi Berra might say:“We could learn a lot by watching and listening to them.” As an example, sperm whales have brains six times the size of ours and rank in the top intelligentsia of animals among dolphins, dogs, killer whales, and the great apes. Sperm whales can live at extreme depths and are very difficult to study, but with new electronics we can learn whale dialects. Sperm whales communicate by clicking sounds that can be read by sonar. Each clan of sperm whales has about 30 adult and baby females. Adult males live solitary lives except when mating. Sperms reach sexual maturity at about ten years. Each clan has distinctive clicks which are used to train the young and to mark clan identity. Sperm whales are very social animals, so clicking allows them to coordinate diving, feeding, and sharing the care of the young. When the mother of a young whale has to go deep to feed,  another whale “whalesits” for her. When near the surface the clan stays close together, and only occasionally joins other clans in a kind of annual reunion.
Orcas, the killer whales we see in water show aquariums  in Florida and California, have a very different social organization from sperm whales. Male killer whales, which grow to be twice the size of female killers, never leave the clan their mother commands and are very deeply involved in her decisions. Female killer whales can live to be eighty, but if they die young, their orphaned sons will often die, too. Strange. Although whales go through puberty as young as eight years, they will suck their mother’s milk up to the age of fifteen. Killer whales and humans have one unique relationship: both go through menopause at about age forty. About one quarter of a killer clan is post reproductive—but they remain sexually active all their lives. Grandmother killers often lead the clan. Killer clans have another unique tie to humans: different clans have different tastes in foods. One clan will eat only one species of salmon while another will eat only one species of seal.  Members of a seal-eating clan captured in the 1970’s starved themselves for 78 days before they started to eat salmon. They ate after conducting a ceremony. Two killers swam around the pool with each end of a salmon in their mouths. Then they divided the salmon and ate it, ending their fast. In the wild, clans of salmon eaters will never eat with mammal eaters. The clans also have completely different dialects for coordination of hunting, division of labor, and other chores. They remind me of another species.

The Strange Case Of  A Food Cooperative

During the 19th and early 20th centuries Australian whale hunters and killer whales formed an unusual food cooperative for the benefit of each clan. First, the killers would perform rituals in front of the whaler’s cottages to let them know humpback whales were in the bay near Sydney. The whalers would come out and harpoon the humpbacks—and then turn the ropes over to killers to tire out the harpooned whales. After the whale was killed the whale men observed the “law of the tongue.” They left the body for 24 hours while the killers ate the tongue and lips. One killer wore its teeth down on one side by pulling on so many ropes. The teeth can be seen in a whale museum in Eden, Australia. Killers are probably the world’s most capable and smart predators—outside of man. Climate change has driven so many orcas into the Arctic Ocean that Eskimo whale hunters say they have reduced Arctic mammals by about a third.
One of the authors wrote this summation about this new research: “The discovery of nonhuman societies composed of highly intelligent social, empathetic individuals possessing sophisticated communication systems will force us to reformulate many questions. We have long asked if whether we are alone in the universe. But clearly we are not alone on earth. The evolution of intelligence, of empathy, and complex societies, is surely more likely than we have hitherto considered. And what is it, exactly, that sets our species apart?” We have a lot of work to do to settle that question. Charles Darwin declared that even earthworms “deserve to be called intelligent because they act in the same manner as a man under similar circumstances.”  Ouch.

Some New Observations About Twelve Ton Elephants

Cynthia Moss has lived with the elephants of Kenya’s Ambolseli National Park for four decades so she can sum them up with authority: “(They are) intelligent, social, emotional, personable, imitative, respectful of ancestors, playful, self-aware, compassionate.” (Can we apply all those adjectives to humans?) Elephant societies are different from human societies. Female elephants don’t like to have adult males around—so they aren’t. But they do like sex and even fake estrus—but that’s as far as it gets. No romance, no marriage. It’s “let’s do it—then get out of my way.”  Matriarchs lead clans that occasionally meet in large groups. Moss claims elephants have super memories and can recognize up to 1,000 other elephants when in a large group. They are empathetic, show tremendous emotion by “crying,” bury their dead, and will often spend a week in an elephant wake, and even have grave visitations. In one experiment a researcher played the recording of a deceased elephant’s voice to its family. The family went crazy searching for their lost relative for days after the playing. There’s quite a bit of “human” in them. Two-year-old baby elephants put up a great fuss when they are weaned, throwing tantrums like a “terrible-two” human child going through the same torture. Elephants have been known to pull out spears from wounded elephants after a native hunt. Infants born with physical disabilities are carefully watched and generally are not abandoned to predators.

A Mystery: How Did The Dolphins Know The Guy Was Dead?

We humans have been studying and working with dolphins for many years, using them for military purposes and our entertainment. They can learn amazing acts and  work well in teams, but this story goes way beyond those skills. For decades the dolphins in the Bahamas that had been working with researchers would welcome them each year with enthusiasm. But this year was different. They would normally come alongside the ship and “bow ride” like dolphins do. This year they stayed aloof from the ship, refusing an invitation to bow ride. Then the researchers discovered that one of their party had died in his bunk. The dolphins then followed the ship into the harbor on both sides of the ship about 50 feet away. The question remains: Can dolphin sonar penetrate the hull of a steel ship—and detect a heart that isn’t beating? We have a lot to learn about our fellow inhabitants on this dot. We also have much to learn about ourselves. We have guys like the Californian who wrapped a four-foot rattlesnake around his neck and posed for a photo. He may lose a hand from the bite. He was lucky it didn’t bite him in the neck. And then we have the local guy who said he was helping steer the deer to shore…….