“The Social Life of Animals” by Ashley Ward. Basic books. 384 pages. $30.
“We must hang together, or, more assuredly, we will all hang separately.”
Benjamin Franklin at the signing of the Declaration of Independence
We humans like to stick together. We attribute the superiority of our species in the animal kingdom to our natural tendency to socialize. Some of us view our sociability as a uniquely human trait. In her new book, “The Social Lives of Animals,” Ashley Ward shows how all creatures, from lowly krill to noble humans, come together to survive.
The book begins with the treacherous search for Antarctic krill, the favorite food of whales in the southern hemisphere. Sailing from Tasmania to Antarctica, where scientists study krill, Ward conveys the sense of horror that often accompanies such a journey, a journey that can include waves that could topple any ship and winds that reach often 100 miles per hour.
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At the Krill Research Station, we learn that many animals feed on these crustaceans, although krill have many ways of discouraging those higher up the food chain. Grouping causes sensory overload in most predators, but not in whales, which function like vacuum cleaners as they ingest the shrimp creatures in large quantities.
Being eaten by a whale actually helps perpetuate the krill as its essence emerges from the whale’s digestive system and the cycle continues.
Moving on to a more commonly recognized insect by most readers, bees are highly socialized animals. We see them in a swarm or in the hive working in the close forest while they collect nectar. There are many species of bees with different societal structures, and although we remember them as one huge group, many activities of bees are individual efforts.
One aspect of the bee world is the desire to protect the group, and the bees will isolate themselves from the colony if they realize they are carrying a parasite. They will abandon the group to save the group. Long live the company!
Let’s move on to a larger animal that depends on living in a group – the lion. On a sunny day in the Kenyan highlands, you might find a pride of lions soaking up the sun while watching for a chance to find dinner. Adult females hunt while male lions keep watch. Cubs play games that prepare them for adulthood.
It seems like an ideal society. But the dominant male is there because he killed an older, weaker male who could no longer defend his territory. The cubs will inherit this role, and they will give up their pride to build one of their own, if they survive to maturity.
When he was younger, the dominant male of this pride killed an older lion, and then a nursing female caught his eye. He killed her cubs because while she was nursing she could not conceive new cubs. In order to build his own domain, he had to remove the problem of his defeated predecessor.
Ward’s book is so engaging that it’s hard to stop reading long enough to enjoy a cup of tea – or to digest the idea that we humans aren’t the only animals who build complicated societies with their own rules and customs designed to perpetuate the species.
Ward is Professor and Director of the Animal Behavior Lab at the University of Sydney, Australia. His stories about the animal societies he observed in their native habitats reveal commonalities that may surprise the reader: bees communicating with pheromones; whales using clicks and whistles; a group of sperm whales adopting an abandoned dolphin; and a lioness adopting day-old offspring from the recent lion dinner party.
One of the values of Ward’s work is that it makes science more accessible. Just as Neil deGrasse Tyson made the cosmos comprehensible, Ward made us appreciate the complexity of our home planet and all of its varied societies.
Michael L. Ramsey is Chairman Emeritus of the Roanoke Public Library Foundation.
Chairman Emeritus, Roanoke Public Library Foundation