10 Animals with Surprisingly Smart Social Lives

ThinkStock
ThinkStock

They may not be able to type out pithy messages in 140 characters or less, and they’re definitely not networking online, but you’ll be surprised at exactly how social certain animals are. Check out these ten animals that might have more of a social network than you.

1. Cows in Cliques Are Smarter Than Lone Bovines

You already know that cows are typically found in herds, but it’s been proven that grouping is actually beneficial to their intelligence. Researcher put calves together and tested them on “reversal learning,” in which they were trained to associate a black or white square with food. Once that had been learned, the researchers switched which color meant food. The clique of calves learned the “reverse” task much faster than the isolated cows. In another test, an unfamiliar object was placed in the pen with a group of cows. The band of bovines grew tired of the new object much faster than the solo cows did, leading researchers to theorize that socially adept cows assimilate better—an important aspect of learning.

2. Female Mule Deer Have Each Other’s Backs

When a female mule deer goes out to graze, she leaves her babies with the other females of the group. If a predator happens by, the other female mule deer will protect all of the nearby fawns, even those belonging to a completely different species of deer, by attacking the bad guy themselves. And you thought you had a good babysitter.

3. Coyotes and Badgers Team Up to Hunt

Sometimes, animals will even cross enemy lines to work toward the greater good. For example, coyotes and badgers tag-team to create a living hell for their prey, eliminating all but the smallest chance for escape. If the prey is above ground, the coyote chases it. If the prey tries to disappear, the badger takes control. It’s a terrible situation for prairie dogs and ground squirrels, but it works out well for both the coyotes and the badgers. Even though they’re actually competing for food, it’s still a win: they’re both able to conserve more energy while taking advantage of each other’s hunting skills.

4. Orcas Teach Their Friends How To Fish

It’s not just old dogs that learn new tricks. Killer whales have been observed picking up new behaviors from one another. Staff at a large sea park observed one of their orcas chewing up the fish chum he was fed. He’d then spit it out onto the surface of the water and wait for a bird to take the bait. While the clueless seagull was snacking, bam—so was the orca. That’s pretty smart, but what’s more impressive is that the whale taught his tricky ways to at least three other orcas in the same enclosure.

5. Rhesus Monkeys Starve Themselves To Protect Another

In 1964, researchers placed a pair of rhesus monkeys in a predicament: If one monkey pulled a chain, he received food to eat, but a shock was delivered to the other monkey at the same time. After he figured out what was happening, the monkey in control of the situation refused to pull the chain for 12 days—he was literally starving to death before he would hurt his fellow test subject again. The lesson? Monkeys have empathy—something even some humans lack.

6. Dolphins Feast Together

In the ocean, up to six dolphins will team up to herd fish together into small groups called “bait balls.” Once the fish are crowded together, the dolphins line up to create a wave that drives the fish in toward shore, making them easy prey—and an easy lunch.

7. Elephants Talk To Each Other (Sometimes In Secret Tones)

Not only do elephants communicate with each other, sometimes they do it in tones humans can’t even hear. After years of observing elephants in the wild, researchers have found that elephants use more than 70 kinds of vocal sounds and 160 visual and tactile signals, expressions, and gestures. They can mean anything from “Let’s go” to “Help, I’m lost.” The latter is often done in a low frequency that will travel for miles through forest, letting the pachyderms connect without alerting other animals to their presence.

8. Cuttlefish Show Their True Colors

It’s pretty normal for us to be selective about which part of ourselves we want to reveal. We show one side to a boss, for instance, and another to a best friend. But cuttlefish can literally split their bodies into different patterns to accomplish different things at the same time. One half of its body may be designed to attract a mate, while the other half is a completely different design to conceal itself from predators. They can even use certain colors to assert dominance in social situations, showing that they’re aware of social hierarchies and structures.

9. Spiders Know That Millions of Legs Are Better Than Eight

What’s more terrifying than the thought of thousands (or millions!) of spiders working together toward one common goal? Not much, but few things are as brilliant, either. Certain species of spiders called “social spiders” act in unison to create massive webs that catch way more prey than one little web would ever catch on its own. In 2007, spiders spun webs that spanned 200 yards in a Texas park. It was later determined that more than 12 families of spiders had participated in building the massive trap.

10. Penguins Get in Sync

Not only do emperor penguins huddle together for warmth, but they also make very specific, synchronized movements that further the effort to retain heat. Roughly every 30 to 60 seconds, all of the penguins in one row of the huddle move anywhere from 2 to 4 inches in the same direction. The penguins in the next row copy the movement soon after, over and over until the whole huddle has completed the tiny maneuver. Researchers theorize that keeping the huddle in constant motion results in a denser (thus warmer) packing, and also keeps the penguins’ blood circulation flowing.

A Newly Discovered Species of Prehistoric Shark Was Named After the Video Game Galaga

Velizar Simeonovski, Field Museum
Velizar Simeonovski, Field Museum

Dinosaurs weren’t the only fearsome creatures who called North America their home millions of years ago. The recent discovery of pointy, fossilized teeth in rock that had been left over from an excavation in the ‘90s has led scientists to declare a new—yet long-extinct—shark species, Smithsonian reports.

North Carolina State University professor Terry Gates, who led the study published in the Journal of Paleontology, named the shark species Galagadon nordquistae after its triangular teeth, which he thought resembled the shape of the battleships in the video game Galaga. The second part of the name pays homage to Karen Nordquist, the retired chemist and volunteer at Chicago’s Field Museum who found the fossils in the first place.

Galagadon lived in what we now know as South Dakota’s Hell Creek Formation, an area known for having rocks and fossils that date back at least 65 million years to the Cretaceous Period. It’s the same place where scientists unearthed Sue the T.rex—the most complete skeleton of its species ever discovered. Not only did the shark live at the same time as Sue, but it also “lived in a river Sue probably drank from,” the Field Museum, where Sue can be seen on display, said in a press release.

In fact, the excavation that led to Sue’s discovery in 1990 is what enabled this latest find. The sediment that encased Sue’s bones, known as matrix, was removed and stored in an underground unit at the Field Museum. Scientists and museum volunteers have only recently begun to sift through it in search of smaller fossils.

Shark tooth fossils
Terry Gates, Journal of Paleontology

Sharks’ skeletons are primarily made of cartilage, which deteriorates over time. But the tiny teeth, measuring just a millimeter wide, helped scientists figure out what the shark looked like. "Galagadon was less than 2 feet long—it's not exactly Jaws," Pete Makovicky, one of the study’s authors, said in a statement.

The species is believed to be similar to bamboo sharks, which can be found today in southeast Asia and Australia. This connection surprised researchers, who are now questioning their understanding of the area where Sue was found, which was thought to be a lake formed from a partially dried-up river. This latest discovery, however, indicates that there “must have been at least some connection to marine environments," Makovicky says.

[h/t Smithsonian]

12 Animals Named After the Noises They Make

A bobolink, said to have been named for the call it makes
A bobolink, said to have been named for the call it makes
iStock.com/PaulReevesPhotography

If you were asked to name an onomatopoeic word, then you’d probably come up with something like boom, boing, whizz, smash, or tick-tock. They’re all perfectly good examples, of course, but onomatopoeia is actually responsible for a lot more words than you might think. For instance, etymologists believe that pebble might have been coined to imitate the sound of flowing water. Laugh might have been invented to sound like, well, a laugh. Owl, crow, and raven are all descended from Old English words (ule, crawe, hræfn) that were meant to imitate the owl’s hoot and the crow’s and raven’s squawks. And the 12 names listed here are all meant to represent the bizarre whoops, chips, peeps and wows made by the animals they describe.

1. AI

An ai in Venezuela
Fernando Flores, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

As well as being a contender for the world’s shortest animal name, ai (which should be pronounced “ah-ee") is another name for a three-toed sloth, especially the pale-throated sloth, found in the far northeast corner of South America. Although sloths are generally fairly docile, the name ai is apparently meant to resemble the high-pitched cry they can make when they’re agitated or alarmed.

2. BOBOLINK

Bobolinks can produce very long and surprisingly complex songs, but their usual go-to noise is a brief four-note call that’s commonly said to sound like someone saying “Bob-o-Lincoln.” The name Bob-o-Lincoln eventually was shortened to bobolink in the 1800s.

3. CHIPMUNK

One theory claims that the name chipmunk is an English interpretation of a native Ojibwe word, ajidamoo, meaning something like “red squirrel.” But because chipmunks were originally known as “chipping squirrels” in English, it seems more likely that the name is actually an English invention, in which case it’s probably meant to describe their short “chipping” call.

4. CHOWCHILLA

A chowchilla
Seabamirum, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The chowchilla is type of logrunner, a small thrush-like bird, that’s native to Queensland, Australia. For a bird not much larger than a robin, the chowchilla has a particularly noisy call that to early European colonists and explorers apparently sounded like “chow-chilla-chow-chow.” The chowchilla was also once known as the “auctioneer bird,” apparently because (with a bit of imagination) its song sounds like an auctioneer's incessant chattering.

5. CHUCK-WILL’S-WIDOW

A cousin of the better-known whippoorwill, the chuck-will’s-widow is another species of nightjar (a family of nocturnal birds related to swifts and martins) native to the southern United States and much of Central America. Dozens of different species of nightjar are found all over the world, and they all share incredible camouflaged plumage and strange whooping calls—so if the “whippoorwill” makes a noise that sounds like poor Will is about to be whipped, then the “chuck-will’s-widow” makes a sound like poor Will’s widow is about to be chucked.

6. GANG-GANG

A gang-gang cockatoo
iStock.com/JohnCarnemolla

The peculiar croaking noise made by the gang-gang cockatoo of southeast Australia has been likened to everything from a creaking wooden door to a cork being pulled from a wine bottle. However you might want to describe it, the onomatopoeic name gang-gang was adopted into English from a Wiradhuri name that was supposed to imitate it.

7. HOOPOE

Hoopoe bird on a branch
iStock.com/shurub

The hoopoe is a striking-looking songbird whose name is meant to imitate its strange whooping call. Their bizarre appearance has also helped make them the frequent subject of myths and folktales over time: the Ancient Egyptians worshipped them and drew pictures of them inside the pyramids; the Romans believed that they were filthy creatures because they fed on dung and frequently nested in graveyards; and at least one old European legend claims that the younger birds look after the older ones in their old age, restoring their youth by plucking out dying feathers and licking blindness from their eyes.

8. KATYDID

A katydid on a purple flower
iStock.com/blindsquirrelphoto

Katydids make their loud and often three-syllable “ka-ty-did” call by rubbing their forewings together. They hear each other, incidentally, with ears located on their front legs. There are more than 6000 species in the katydid family, found on every continent except Antarctica.

9. MACAQUE

The name macaque was borrowed into English via French in the late 17th century, but it’s thought to originally derive from an old Bantu name, kaku, for any of the numerous monkey species found in West Africa. The name kaku is in turn supposed to be imitative of a monkey call, and it’s from the plural form of kaku—namely makaku in Bantu—that the word macaque eventually evolved.

10. PEEWIT

A type of plover with characteristic green plumage and a long curled crest, the northern lapwing has a number of nicknames in English—including the peewit, the swipe, the peepsweep, the teewhit, and the teeack—every one of which is supposed to emulate its noisy alarm call. The common name lapwing, incidentally, refers to the bird’s tactic of feigning a broken wing in order to distract predators from their nest when they feel threatened.

11. PIET-MY-VROU

Piet-my-vrou is another name for the red-chested cuckoo, a species of cuckoo found across much of sub-Saharan Africa. Cuckoos are well known for their instantly recognizable call, and it’s the loud three-note descending call of the piet-my-vrou (which literally means “Pete my wife” in Afrikaans) that gives it its name.

12. WOW-WOW

A wow-wow, or agile gibbon

Gibbons are famous for their lengthy and surprisingly complex songs, and the whooping or “wowing” call of the wow-wow or wawa—a local Indonesian name for either the agile gibbon or the silvery gibbon—is no exception. Sadly both species are now listed as endangered, due to their localized distribution and on-going habitat destruction.

This story first ran in 2014.

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