Birds do it, bees do it...

In this essay for our new exhibition FAKE, Nicola Marples, professor of zoology at Trinity College Dublin and one of the curators of the exhibition, talks about faking it in the natural world.

The theme of FAKE is fascinating for anyone like myself who is interested in the behaviour of animals. In order to be deceptive in the same way that humans are, you need what’s called ‘second order intentionality’. This means you are aware of other people knowing things, which may not be the same things as you know. It is an amazingly valuable skill, helping hugely with social interactions; it also allows you to lie and cheat effectively, because lying is really manipulating the contents of someone else’s brain to your benefit. Humans establish this skill pretty late in our development and there are lots of arguments about whether any of the rest of the animal kingdom truly has it at all. So are all animals out there telling the truth? Not at all.

Animals are deceptive in a huge variety of ways, but they have evolved to be so, rather than working out in each context how to manipulate their audience. They have adaptations which dupe their receiver, and those with effective versions of these adaptations have passed them on down the generations, so the animals alive today are effective deceivers.

So, what examples of this behaviour can we find in the animal kingdom? Many insects hide from their predators by practicing what’s called ‘masquerade’, where their colour pattern and shape make them look like something inedible such as a leaf, a stick or, quite often, a bird dropping. Some caterpillars, when attacked, turn the hind end of their body into a replica of a snake’s head, surprising the predator into second thoughts about whether to attack. Some prey play dead, even emitting the smell of rotting flesh, in the case of the hog snake, which is usually enough to persuade the predator that this isn’t it’s favourite morsel. It’s not just the prey that are lying through their teeth; predators are doing so too. For example, angler fish have a specially modified fin on the top of their head which they can flick forward like a fishing rod. On the end of the rod is a little replica fish, which the angler fish wriggles as bait to draw small predatory fish towards itself, only to whisk it away just as they are about to bite it and grab them for its own dinner.

Many birds and mammals live in groups, and give an ‘alarm call’ if they see a predator, so the whole group can get away. When more than one species work together, one species will often watch high in the canopy for hawks while others are on the ground and will warn if they meet a fox. Birds such as drongos work together with meerkats in this way. However, this cosy relationship isn’t always so reliable.

Occasionally, a particularly clever drongo will wait until he sees the meerkats dig up something especially delicious and then give an alarm call. All the meerkats run for cover, and the drongo goes down and helps himself to the tasty morsel, knowing full well that there was no predator. The drongo has to keep such deception rare or the meerkats will stop listening to him — you can’t cry wolf too often!

Deception isn’t only about food. Animals must win mates and raise young to pass their genes to the next generation, and the mating game is rife with lying and cheating. Birds like blue tits, which seem to be monogamous, with a hard-working pair raising chicks together, turn out to be playing false in every possible way. Males nip into the next door territory and mate with their neighbour’s wife whenever her partner isn’t looking, and the females solicit matings outside their pairing too, trying to get more variety into their chicks. The females will even dump eggs into their neighbour’s nest, leaving the neighbours to bring up a few extra kids for her. Genetic studies have revealed that in many apparently monogamous species there’s so much of this going on that almost no-one is raising a nestful of chicks that is entirely their own.

Mammals are no better behaved. Badgers have an amazingly complex breeding system in which it’s almost impossible for the dominant male to know which cubs he’s fathered. The female mates with him in spring but then mates with anyone she fancies all year, collecting up embryos with different fathers, and then implants a selection when she wants to have the cubs. This produces cubs in the dominant male’s sett amongst which he’s no idea how many, if any, are his.

 

So animals are lying and cheating their way through life as effectively as we are, they’re just not aware of it in the same way. The variety of methods by which deception is feasible stretches the imagination, but if it’s possible, then you can be fairly sure some animal somewhere is doing it!

FAKE: THE REAL DEAL? at Science Gallery Dublin is now open, Tuesday-Friday from 12:00 to 20:00 and Saturday and Sunday from 12:00 to 18:00. Visit dublin.sciencegallery.com/fake to find out more or come see the exhibition yourself before it closes on 3 June.