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Cooperative critters

The recent video shows a coyote waiting for a badger so that they could both go through a tunnel together. They seemed like old friends; they knew each other as individuals. They were happy to see one another.

The viral video moved the biologist Jennifer Campbell-Smith to write the following:

“Scientifically, we are finally emerging from a dark period of studying nature simply as a stimulus-and-instinct-driven movie that humans can observe — the kind of thinking used to justify government-funded culls and mass indiscriminate killing of native speciesRecent research demonstrates the cognitive and cultural capabilities of non-human animals, as well as the importance of their proclivities and personalities, and more data keep piling up. Some individual animals, for example, have the right combination of bold, exploratory traits to do well in human-dominated landscapes, while more cautious ones may flourish in relatively rural and wild landscapes. In fact, researchers have observed population-level genetic changes in city-dwellers compared to their country cousins of the same species, in everything from coyotes to anoles and black widow spiders.

“Different animals also hold different social statuses within an ecosystem. Much like what can happen within a human community, the death of a specific individual may have a large impact on social structure. I’ve watched whole regions of crows restructure their social dynamics and movements due to the death of a single key individual, and I’ve seen how age and experience shape individuals and the behavior they pass on to others. Wildlife managers must take all of this into account rather than relying on the traditional, numbers-only management style that treats all individuals of a species as if they have equal weight in an ecosystem.

“In the viral video, I see an elegant demonstration of how complex and flexible nature is. How intelligent these two animals are — not simply two animal-robots reacting solely to stimuli. How the body language and ease between them suggests that they know each other as individuals, and that those individuals matter.

While it’s scientifically prudent to acknowledge only the data that exist in peer-reviewed studies, we humans must broaden our lens and see the metaphorical forest before we get lost in the trees. We must hold each other, management agencies and policymakers accountable for the broader picture that the evidence is highlighting and use it to better relate to the world we live in, and the organisms that exist alongside us.”

In short, animals are capable of acting like they do in children’s stories, when they are not required to eat one another. The lion will lay down with the lamb, at least until lunch, and Mr. Coyote and Mr. Badger will greet one another cheerfully as they commute to their night jobs in Los Angeles.