Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Behavior: Compassion and a Little Conspecific Attraction

So I just read two mildly interesting articles from SciAm. Excerpts are below.

The subject of the first article is a near toothless skull that was found that suggests that early Homo may have not only been social but very compassionate. This skull had tooth sockets that had grown over and thus clearly had been toothless for a long while during the life of the individual.

Toothless Skull Raises Questions about Compassion among Human Ancestors
In order to survive without the ability to chew or bite meat, the gummy individual would have needed to collect sufficient soft food, including bone marrow, brain matter or soft plant food. Such gathering or processing could have been done alone, but the scientists posit that other individuals may have helped because of the individual's advanced age or illness, either of which could have been responsible for the loss of his teeth. The discovery, the authors conclude, "raises interesting questions regarding social structure, life history and subsistence strategies of early Homo that warrant further investigation."

The second article discusses a new finding that some fish are attracted to coral reefs that contain certain sounds. Other studies have been done (on birds, for example) very similar to this that show that many animals have a sort of conspecific attraction that draws them toward the sounds of their own species. This is usually a pretty honest signal of the quality of a nest site (it's good to know that other of the same species are surviving there). Something similar may be going on with these fish. What's interesting is that animals tend to have pretty good memories of these sorts of things. This indicates that you can lead animals toward a managed area as a conservation measure. This also indicates that certain areas, however wonderful they may be, may not draw any animals to it if it isn't appropriately attractive. However, a big thing is that this indicates that foreign sounds (sonar, for example) may prevent an animal from ever returning to a perfectly good area.

Sounds Guide Young Fish toward Home
The discovery that fish respond to reef sounds suggests a potentially valuable management tool, the authors say. "This is a significant step forward in our understanding of their behavior, which should help us to better predict how we should conserve or harvest populations of reef fishes in the future," Simpson remarks. "It should also alert policymakers to the damage that human activities like drilling and shipping may have on fish stocks because they drown out the natural clues given by animals."

The main point here is that behavior is important. You cannot have a good conservation strategy without understanding behavioral ecology. Behavior tells us a lot about how human beings will respond to certain measures, and similarly behavior tells us how animals will respond as well. It even allows us to communicate things to the animals, like where good places to nest are.

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