Teacher Appreciation Week: Animal (school)House

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For our final tribute to teachers, we're focusing on creatures -- today we visit the animal kingdom to see what learning looks like there.

Dolphins: Spongeworthy Under the Sea
Using tools was once thought to separate humans from primates, but now, it doesn't seem to distinguish us much from dolphins, either. Recently, scientists observed dolphins using sponges to protect their sensitive schnozzes while searching for food on the rough sea floor. Not only that, but they also appear to be especially shrewd in their choice of tools. They only select sponges that are conical, not flat, so their noseguards stay on even if they get jostled during use. Sponge use also appears to be a family tradition usually passed from mothers to daughters. Some researchers have even speculated that the behavior may have originated with one common ancestor (the "Sponging Eve," so to speak) that other dolphins copied.

Macaques: Monkeys that Wash and Learn
Scientists have long been impressed with the macaque, a type of monkey known to exhibit several unique learned behaviors, including wheat-washing, stone-handling, and group snowball-rolling. And if that's not enough to make you want to adopt one, consider this: It just might fix you dinner. Behavioral researchers on Koshima Island, off the coast of Japan, laid out sweet potatoes along the beach for a group of macaques, and one smart female monkey named Imo made sure to wash them in the ocean before eating. Pretty soon, other macaques had caught on, and the behavior has since been passed on to several new generations of macaques from Imo's troop.

Ants: An Apple for Your Teacher
While all the other entries on this list focus on animals that like to learn, it's far more difficult to find those that enjoy teaching (that arrogant, self-righteous calculus professor you had junior year included). On the whole, animals learn by imitation, not pedagogy. In fact, scientists know of only one exception to this rule, and that's the ant. In order to help the younger generation find the path to the grub, older ants utilize a technique called "tandem running." A professor ant takes the lead, but if it can't feel the eager limbs of the pupil on its posterior, the leader will slow down so the little learner can catch up. Though crude, this counts as teaching because the lead ants are willing to compromise their own bid for the ant buffet so their younger pals can catch up—and that's downright humanitarian, folks. At least for the ants.

You can read about seven more of those in Mark Peters' "10 Studious Animals to Cheat off off in School," found in our September/October issue. By the way, if you're a subscriber, you should be getting the November/December issue very soon... and if you're not, well, hey, get on that!

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October 20, 2006 - 10:22am
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