10 Animals with Surprisingly Smart Social Lives

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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.

Want to learn more about the animal kingdom’s amazingly social creatures? Tune in to Nova tonight at 9 pm Eastern/8 pm Central on PBS’s Think Wednesday lineup.

April 16, 2014 - 12:00pm
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