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Cooperation in Animals: From ants to rats to clusterflocks

We’ve long thought ourselves to be distinct and separate from the rest of the animal kingdom. Yet we, too, are social animals. Simply put, by understanding animals, we learn about ourselves.

MARC BEKOFF: Ashley Ward is the author of a new book called “The Social Lives of Animals.” The book aims to communicate Ward’s enthusiasm for the science of animal behavior to a wide audience… Here’s what Ashley had to say about his fascinating and easy-to-read tour through the animal kingdom…

MB: Why did you write The Social Lives of Animals?

AW: The book marries my passion for writing with my fascination for animals. The process of writing The Social Lives of Animals was an absolute joy, but my broader aim was to try and communicate my enthusiasm for the science of animal behaviour to a wide audience. Part of the process of my research at the University of Sydney is to produce academic papers that detail new scientific advances in the field. However, these papers are tailored to a relatively small audience of other researchers in my discipline.

Consequently, so many fascinating discoveries fail to reach the public’s notice because we scientists often don’t do a good enough job of publicising our findings, despite their inherently fascinating nature. I wanted to address this in my book, to engage with a wide range of readers, to share the wonderful things that are going on in the study of animal behaviour, and, hopefully, to make them as excited as I am about the subject…

MB: What are some of the topics you weave into your book and what are some of your major messages?

AW: I think that the incredible diversity of species that have opted to live socially, in groups, represents one of the most extraordinary stories in animal behaviour. Think of ants, fish, and the tadpoles I mentioned earlier. Then there’s so many birds that flock or nest in colonies—clusterflocks—as well as a host of mammals, including dolphins and primates, who live in tight-knit groups.

Sociality is one of the most widespread and important strategies out there, and it’s something that so many animals, not least us, have to thank for their success. That success comes, in large part, from the cooperation that is fostered by group living. Yet despite this, we’ve long seemed to focus on aspects of behaviour such as aggression and competition, summed up by phrases such as “nature red in tooth and claw.”

These elements can, of course, be dramatic—think of two elephant seals battling for supremacy, for instance—but if we view life solely from this perspective, we’re missing the point. The bonds that social animals form provide one of the most powerful forces in nature and it’s by working together that they’ve succeeded. I think that this viewpoint has long been neglected and it’s one that I bring to the fore in my book.

Another theme is our exceptionalism: we’ve long thought ourselves to be distinct and separate from the rest of the animal kingdom. Yet we, too, are social animals and it’s through this tendency to build alliances and to cooperate which provides the foundation for humanity’s achievements. Moreover, we can see the roots of our social tendencies in the behaviour of the myriad animals that live in groups. Simply put, by understanding animals, we learn about ourselves. SOURCE…


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