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Aesop’s fables: The science behind what the stories got wrong © Getty Images

Aesop’s fables: The science behind what the stories got wrong

The sly fox, the stubborn donkey... Many of our ideas about animal behaviour come from Aesop's fables. But how many are really accurate?

The wolf in sheep’s clothing. The tortoise and the hare. These are among the most recognisable of Aesop’s fables, a collection said to have been conceived by a slave some 2,500 years ago to communicate moral messages to the ancient Greeks. Remarkably, Aesop’s fables are still enjoyed around the world and we even refer to their morals in our day-to-day language: think ‘slow and steady wins the race’, ‘sour grapes’ or ‘honesty is the best policy’.

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They also sow the seeds for our developing beliefs of how animals behave: we grow up with stories of the sly fox, crafty crow or foolish donkey – but what’s the truth of these notions? The last century has seen an explosion of scientific research into what animals do and why, meaning that we are now equipped to explore what science has to say about Aesop’s fables.

My new book, Aesop’s Animals, does just that and while there is clearly still much to discover about animal minds, it seems likely that if Aesop were alive today, he might want to do a bit of re-writing.

The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Given how ingrained the deceptive wolf stereotype is in modern culture, it may be surprising to learn that it has no factual basis. Wolves live in strongly bonded family groups (‘packs’) and exhibit cooperation, playfulness and loyalty to their kin. They work together to hunt and are far from being ruthless killing machines – although they usually pursue the most vulnerable individuals in a herd of elk or moose, the pack frequently fails to make a kill.

Wolves are the closest living relatives of domestic dogs, and experimental studies have revealed some remarkable similarities and differences in their problem-solving abilities: both can cooperate effectively with humans to solve tasks, but wolves also cooperate far better with other wolves than dogs do with dogs.

When faced with a tricky problem, wolves get by through sheer persistence, whereas dogs often look to their humans for help. Deception makes little sense for these extreme co-operators, meaning that Aesop (and numerous other storytellers since) was wrong.

Fortunately, there are better candidates for animals that can be cast in the role of the deceiver.

The Monkey and the Fisherman

Aesop’s fable painted the monkey as ‘the most imitative of all animals’, and it’s a characterisation that has stuck, preserved in sayings such as ‘monkey see, monkey do’. Originally, imitation (i.e. faithfully copying the actions of others) was thought to reveal a lack of intelligence, so monkeys were painted as foolish, mindless mimics that couldn’t think for themselves.

Over the last century or so, the scientific consensus on this has changed and imitation has become something of a ‘holy grail’ in animal social learning, likely due to its associations with culture and the fact that it underpins our own, phenomenal cultural evolution.

What was taken as fact has now become fiction – decades worth of research has found that while many monkey species are influenced by what other members of their troop are doing, they don’t imitate them. Instead, a monkey may simply pay attention to whatever another monkey is interacting with, subsequently exploring and learning about that object.

This is categorically different to imitating, leading to the consensus that monkeys don’t learn from other monkeys, but with them.

Read more about animal behaviour:

The Ass Carrying an Image

While donkeys have always been beasts of burden, they weren’t always ridiculed. The negative perceptions seem to have grown as horses became more common and surpassed their smaller cousins as the dominant equid (the group of related species that also includes zebras and wild asses).

In fact, the features of donkeys that are often mocked can be accounted for by their ancestral ecology and evolutionary history on the African plains. Big heads mean large jaw muscles, which allow them to grind down tough, lignin-rich plants, while their large ears help to dissipate heat. Unlike horses, they’re not herd animals and this means they’re more prone to fight than flight – donkeys will stand their ground and defend their territory, which makes them remarkably effective guard animals.

While there is a paucity of studies evaluating their intelligence, donkeys are capable learners and they show more behavioural flexibility than their stubborn label would suggest. What’s more, studies into the social intelligence of horses, which have been domesticated for approximately the same length of time as donkeys, are revealing some remarkable abilities. Perhaps if we made the effort to investigate donkey minds, we might be surprised by what we find.

The Crow and the Pitcher

It’s not all bad for Aesop – several of his animal fables seem to be based in fact, most notably the fable of his thirsty crow, in which a parched bird dropped stones into a pitcher to raise the water level. A pivotal study of rooks (which are members of the crow family, the Corvidae) found that several birds behaved just as Aesop’s crow, and the same has since been found in studies of Eurasian Jays, New Caledonian Crows and (some) American Crows.

The thornier question is what this reveals about corvid intelligence, because simply seeing an animal do a particular thing reveals little about how and why it does so: do the birds understand the causal relationship between the stones and the water level, or do they just learn that dropping stones into a tube increases the likelihood of getting a reward?

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Distinguishing these alternatives is tricky; nonetheless, what is clear from an ever-increasing number of studies is that members of the Corvidae possess big brains, can learn extremely quickly, solve problems and show a striking flexibility in their behaviour.

Aesop’s Animals: The Science Behind the Fables by Jo Wimpenny is out now (£17.99, Bloomsbury Sigma).

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