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Sex, Lies and Drugs

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By Maneka Gandhi

According to a research study, people lie at least once a day, but even that number is probably a lie. However, humans are not the only species on earth that are capable of deception. You will find as much danger and intrigue in the animal kingdom as in a Tarantino film. Many primates, especially the common chimpanzee, display the ability to deceive in order to gain competitive advantage. Such acts range from the simple, as in a chimpanzee deliberately leading his troop away from a hidden food stash, to the relatively complex, like a subordinate chimpanzee exploiting the fear of darkness of a superior chimpanzee in order to stop his bullying behaviour. Their lying is not malicious or mischievous – it is only to improve their own chances of survival. Nor is it only their own kind that primates seek to fool. There is the infamous case of Koko the gorilla blaming a kitten for the mess he had made in his den. Sounds exactly like any teenager!

As with us, broken homes often cause problematic, even dishonest, behaviour among animals. Take the reaction of bird chicks. Studies found that infant chicks were more dishonest when there was family conflict. If the parents were likely to die, the chicks engaged in more exaggerated begging behaviour. This makes sense because the loss of one parent would mean that future babies would not be full siblings to the existing chicks. Exaggerated begging behaviour was common in species that lay a lot of eggs and mate with multiple partners, such as blackbirds. Dishonesty was rarest in long-lived, hardy species that mate for life, like the albatross. This shows that evolution has resulted in sibling dishonesty when it would help chicks compete with potentially unrelated siblings.

Some of the animals, expert at the game of deception, are Cowbirds, Blue Jays, Cuttlefish, and Eastern Grey Squirrels. Cowbirds trick other birds into incubating and nurturing their offspring by sneaking their eggs into the nest of their target birds. The Eastern Grey Squirrel pretends to bury nuts while still holding onto them, like in a magic trick, fooling potential robbers who are spying on him.

The animal kingdom boasts of magicians as cunning as our own. The cuttlefish who, despite the name, is not a fish but a mollusc, is nature’s own camouflage expert. Gifted with specialised skin cells that allow them to instantly change colour, look how creative these clever creatures are. Researchers noticed that the male sometimes displays a strange, split-down-the-middle colouration. On the side facing a female, he shows typically male pulsating stripes. On the side facing a male, he shows mottled camouflage— a typically female pattern. It was observed that this behaviour occurred only in groups where there were two males and one female. So the male cuttlefish reveals his identity to the female he is wooing and fools his rival male into thinking that it’s just a couple of girls together. The fact that males only display this behaviour in a very specific context proves that they are able to correctly assess a situation and behave accordingly.

Nor is cheating uncommon among animals. Gouldian finches cheat on their mate, not just once or twice but multiple times. Research has shown that the females have the ability to differentiate between higher and lower quality sperms, and whether the new lover’s genes are compatible with theirs. This prompts them to engage in serial adultery in quest of better genetic prospects for their young. Since her partner would either leave her or, in rarer case, put in less effort in raising the offspring, this little lady hides her infidelity from him for fear of enduring the hardship of a ‘single mother’.

In the animal world, as in ours, sex sells. Female penguins, whether they are single or attached, will barter sex for ‘precious’ stones. Stones, to the penguins, are truly valuable materials because that’s what they need to keep their eggs afloat. The prostitution starts with the female penguin initiating courtship by joining a male at his site and ‘head-bowing’ to him, soon followed by copulation. She will then collect a stone from his nesting site and return to her own nest. In some exceptional cases, female penguins manage to cheat a male out of his stones without providing any sexual favours in return.

“Me Too’’? They too. Sometimes sexual conflict occurs: for instance, males might become persistent and forceful in their mating behaviours with a lack of courtship rituals. The female evolves ways to handle this, evolving traits specifically to avoid male harassment and forced copulation. Male mosquito fish have a modified fin, called a gonopodium that they use to inseminate females. Researchers found that as the males evolved larger gonopodia, the females evolved larger brains. Extra intelligence helps the females to find ways to avoid unwelcome male advances.

As for kinky sex, we are not a patch on animals. In fear of being eaten by a female during mating, the male Argonaut Octopus will often rip off his own penis and fling it at the female to ‘do’ herself. With lobsters the opposite is true. Here, it is the female that feels vulnerable as, in order to mate, she must first shed her hard shell, rendering herself open to predation. So, first the female tests whether she can trust the male to protect her while she is exposed, moving in with him for extended foreplay lasting several days.

Once sure of her man, the female disrobes, slowly shedding both her hard shell and the pouch where she had banked sperm from a prior mate. Her new shell has a new sperm pouch; he thrusts a packet of sperm into it using appendages called gonopods. The deed is done. As soon as one mate leaves, the male will welcome another. Rather than mating for life, a dominant male lobster mates with an entire harem.

Finally, humans aren’t the only creatures on Earth to indulge in substance abuse. Dolphins have been seen passing a Pufferfish between them for upto 30 minutes at a time. These Pufferfish release a potent defensive chemical when threatened that has trance-inducing qualities. The dolphins carefully, and deliberately, handle him in such a way that’s indicative of the fact that they know what they’re doing, and it’s not the first time they’re doing it. African apes and humans share a genetic mutation that enables them to effectively metabolise ethanol. Chimps frequently drink fermented palm sap—an alcoholic, naturally-occurring sort of wine that human locals are also partial to. The slow loris ingests fermented nectar from the Bertam palm, while green monkeys at St Kitts shamelessly target tourist cocktails.

(To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.peoplefor animalsindia.org)