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Liz Bonnin with a three-toed sloth © BBC NHU/Stuart Dunn

Why bad animal behaviour isn't as brutal as it looks

Published: 17th July, 2018 at 17:12
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Science and Wildlife presenter Liz Bonnin returns to our screens with her new series Animals Behaving Badly - we ask where the naturally naughty becomes beastly.

The new show is called Animals Behaving Badly, but at times it goes beyond bad to brutal.


Well yeah, it does, doesn’t it? It’s kind of part of the reason why we wanted to do a show like this.

There’re a lot of animal behaviours across the animal kingdom that are brutal, but when you fully understand the reason behind they are not as violent, ruthless or devious as they seem.

I’m always pleasantly surprised and humbled by the animal kingdom when I discover just how clever some of these behaviours are, and the purpose of them.

So, what you’re saying is that what we perceive as bad behaviour is actually sort of animal intelligence?

Well, what we perceive as bad behaviour is based on how we negotiate the world, in society and around other individuals of our species, whereas every animal is different and has evolved to a particular niche.

Certain behaviours that we see as terrible are actually very different. The barbary macaques in Gibraltar are a perfect example of that. When you see a male steal a baby from a mother [as seen in the first episode], and the baby vocalising in what seems distress, you’re thinking “Wow these are really evil monkeys, why would he be doing that? He’s torturing the baby and why is he kidnapping the baby from the mother?”. But actually, the mother isn’t distressed at all, and the baby is vocalising just to stay in touch with her.

Nobody is actually distressed, and behaviours like that actually serve to appease the whole society and prevent fights. The baby is, in fact, a sort of olive branch that’s presented to the alpha male if a subordinate male has misbehaved or has lost favour with him, and all they do is handle the baby and sort of chatter their teeth, as if to say “Hey, I like you, do you like me back?”.

When you understand the purpose of that you actually realise that it’s not violent or evil behaviour at all.

Taking a baby seems like a very primal thing to do - it’s going to annoy a lot of people if you do that - but yet the females are okay with it?

The females are absolutely okay with it. Whereas human beings would see nothing good about kidnapping a baby, in a different species it means something completely different.

The baby is vocalising to say “mum, what’s going on?” (because at the end of the day it’s still different), while she is going “it’s alright, let Uncle Fred take you to the alpha male, it’s all fine darling. You know this is how we keep the peace here.” She’s absolutely fine, you never see a female frantically trying to get their baby back.

It just goes to illustrate just how different animals are and what we can perceive to be a certain behaviour based on the way we live our lives couldn’t be further from the truth.

I think the more we begin to understand that, the more we begin to look at animals on their own terms. Not only does it make the animal kingdom more fascinating, hopefully we can respect and admire other animals, and value them for their intelligence and their beautifully complex societies and their differences.

Do you have any other examples of where what we would perceive as bad behaviour is actually just animals doing something pretty cool?

Our interpretation of what can be bad comes in all sort of shapes and sizes, right? So, for me, the three-toed sloth story in the survival episode is quite interesting, because when you get up close with the sloth, it just comes across as the most filthy, most unhygienic animal you would ever come across. You just think “oh, so that is a really lazy dirty animal that just doesn’t even keep its fur clean.”

But actually, the green hue to its fur is because algae grows on it in the humid forests of Panama, and when you understand why its fur is teeming with insects - with spiders and ants and predominantly moths - then it’s a game changer. The point of it is that a sloth needs algae on its fur.

Scientists think it helps camouflage the sloth from predators, like harpy eagles and jaguars, but more importantly, it will suck the algae off its fur for nutrition, which has five times more fat, and more vitamins and minerals than the leaves the sloth usually feeds on.

But the really cool thing is that in order to keep the algae thriving on its fur, the sloth needs to maintain its main food source - the moths. The sloth will never normally leave the protection of the tree it lives in, except for once a week when it goes to ground to defecate. The moths lay their eggs in the faeces, which in turn will feed the larvae that eventually turn into moths for the algae to feed on.

So, the sloth is doing anything it can, even though it’s very dangerous to go on the ground at any time, especially for such a slow-moving animal, to keep the moth life cycle going, so that its fur is kept full of moths, so that the moths can keep the algae thriving, so that the sloths can keep nourished. Isn’t that the most extraordinary thing?

And you know, we didn’t know that. It was not until science unravelled the beautifully complex layers of this that they realised the sloth is not just a filthy animal with bad hygiene habits - it’s actually a very clever system going on.

At first it sounds like a very lazy teenager who doesn’t wash much.

Exactly, a dirty teenager that can’t be bothered to clean, but it’s actually one of the most fascinating things I’ve come across in this series, I loved it.

There seems to be a purpose for all these bad behaviours. Are there any animals that are just genuinely naughty?

Well, I’d go as far as saying there are some animals that are generally badly behaved in a nastier way than just being naughty, like chimpanzees.

There’s been quite a lot of research done on why, in a chimpanzee troop, some alpha males are more violent than others. It was initially thought that in all societies with an alpha male, their job was to look after all of the troop and make sure they’re thriving, but it seems with more of the recent research that chimpanzee alphas are really looking after number one - they’re not really that interested in the rest of the troop.

Their main goal is to pass on their genes and so any alpha will put everybody in their place when they need to, and make sure that he will mate with all the females, keeping everybody else in check.

But with that, just like in human society, you sometimes have individuals that are particularly nasty when it comes to asserting their authority. There was a particular chimp that was studied in Gombe National Park, where Jane Goodall did all her research, who was just a tyrant (although, even in that example there was a reason for it). It can seem like an individual is just being bad for badness sake, but even in this example, at the end of the day that chimpanzee was very successful.

He seemed to have higher levels of aggression than other alpha males in that troop over the years, and he had a passion for attacking human researchers - he’d give them a pummelling whenever he got a chance – and he would also get quite violent with the babies. But actually, what scientists are saying, is that even in that case, when you get individual cases of more aggressive chimps as individuals, being a bully leads to success.

So actually, is there really an example of just being bad for badness sake? Probably not, probably not.

So, unlike humans (of which there are plenty of naughty ones), animal bad behaviour is more of an evolved survival technique?

I think so. The closest thing we would get to that in human personalities would be a psychopath, someone who is excessively violent or tyrannical, and has all these terribly bad behaviours for no other reason than just being bad. The question of whether animals could be psychopaths was raised when we began to see individuals be particularity bad, but now, when you talk to the scientists who are still studying this area, they don’t think it’s the case.

They don’t think that chimpanzees are capable of being psychopathic because when you look at the benefits to being a bully, it’s an evolutionary advantage, even though you do get certain individuals who are particularly bad or violent. There’s still an advantage to it, an evolutionary advantage.

So far in the animal kingdom, other than ourselves, the human species, there doesn’t seem to be another animal that’s just being bad for badness’ sake - there’s always a benefit to that individual.

Is there anything that animal behaviour can teach us about ourselves in that respect?

Well, animals can teach us a lot in every respect to be honest, and probably one of the biggest lessons is when we’re trying to understand our evolution.

We have come to the conclusion that human beings are the most intelligent, the most highly evolved, but there is no such thing as being more highly evolved than any other animal. Every animal has evolved to fit a niche, and is as effective in that niche as it needs to be in its environment.

So, for many years we’ve set ourselves apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Since I started making animal behaviour programmes over ten years ago, the scientific community and the greater community is more aware of the fact that we are no better or more intelligent than the rest of the animal kingdom.

When it comes to violence and that aspect of our behaviour, I think that we can look at animal societies, even violent chimpanzee societies, and understand that for them there is always a purpose.

Look at bonobos, who are as closely related to us as chimpanzees are, but live in a matriarchal society where there is very little fighting. They adopt sexual behaviour in a way that’s very different to us - it’s like a handshake, it appeases violence, it keeps the peace. We have a lot to learn about how different animals, even the ones that are the most closely related to us, behave in a societal context.

And I think part of the reason why we make these programmes is to try and communicate that, because it is so fascinating and it is so humbling and we have so much to learn from how all the other animals that we share this planet with deal with altercations, deal with the need for resources, deal with the potential for violence versus looking at a different way to handle a situation. So, in that regard bonobos are very interesting.

They’re sort of the most civil of the animals out there?

Well I wouldn’t say civil, but they definitely like to keep their peace, and they’ve found an effective way of doing that, because ultimately, for them [violence] is energetically costly and a waste of their time. I mean a male will start dragging a branch around, trying to just cause trouble and a female will just say “oh, come over here, let’s just have a bit of sex” and that’s the end of it.

Now obviously as humans we will look at that and go “ooh, that’s very promiscuous and immoral behaviour,” but again we have to understand that’s just how we view the world, and animals can see the world completely differently.

So, sex to bonobos is not the way we view sex at all - it’s like giving a hug or a handshake, it’s like “I’m doing this to show you that I want to keep the peace and I don’t want to fight”. It’s hard to get our heads around sometimes with behaviours that are potentially taboo in our society, but that’s what I love about the animal kingdom. The more we understand the animal kingdom and look at animals on their own terms instead of imposing our own judgements or taboos, it’s fascinating - we can learn so much from it.

Some animal behaviours would make us say “well that’s a bit taboo”, but did you see some things within certain animal groups that would make us say “well that’s a bit much, I’m not ready for that”?

Animal taboos, that’s a really good question. I don’t really know, by very nature of the fact that animals haven’t evolved brains like we have. Humans are very peculiar and particular because of how we have evolved a brain that reasons and questions, with morals, ethics and a sense of justness. There is a sense of justice and justness in the animal kingdom, too, but animals live in a much more natural way, if that makes sense. They’re about instincts, it’s about intelligence, but it’s a very complex subject. I have not come across animals that have shied away from something because it’s taboo to them, but I think it would be very difficult to identify that. Perhaps in the future we will be able to, but right now we can’t interpret that.

We have witnessed animals feeling a sense of justice, like “this isn’t fair, he’s getting this and I’m not getting this”, but I don’t think any other animal in the animal kingdom needs to complicate their lives with the issue of whether something is taboo. I think it may well be a uniquely human trait.

As we’ve heard, the show was quite brutal at times. Were there any moments you wondered what a dangerous situation you got yourself into?

Well I wasn’t there but I think it would have been the banded mongooses. They are incredibly violent when they come up against each other. Like many social animals there is a need for resources, food, and for territory, but they’re particularly violent when they meet each other.

But what’s fascinating is that some females use that to their advantage. There’s a problem with inbreeding amongst banded mongooses, and so a female will instigate warfare with another troop in order to take off and mate with a male from that group in order to ensure her pups are healthy.

Now that’s quite calculated because she knows that some of her troop may die, but to her the trade-off is worth it. To her it’s worth it to have healthy pups and to continue her line, pass on her genes to pups that will survive and won’t have any disabilities because they’re inbred.

It’s quite Machiavellian in a way, isn’t it?

You could consider it, in human terms, yes. In animal terms, it’s purely “I need to protect my offspring, I need to make sure that they are as healthy and fit genetically as they possibly can be”, so in that sense it’s not Machiavellian, in that sense it’s “I’ll do anything for my offspring.”

Was there any animal behaviour that was particularly difficult to watch?

Let me tell you a little about the hyena cubs. I personally adore hyenas, I think they’ve got a very bad reputation from us, an unfair reputation. To watch a mother with her cubs is just stunning, they’re excellent mothers, but they have evolved this very interesting and slightly disconcerting strategy when it comes to survival.

As well as scavengers they’re incredible hunters, in fact only half of their diet comes from scavenging. Once their main food source begins to migrate in the dry season, this strategy has evolved to make sure that at least one of the pups will survive.

© BBC NHU/imageBROKER /Alamy Stock Photo
© BBC NHU/imageBROKER /Alamy Stock Photo

Hyenas have twins a lot of the time, and what happens is, if food and milk is scarce, from the very beginning there’s this sort of play fighting that starts, which looks incredibly adorable and very cute because all babies play fight and scurry around each other, but it turns quite violent very quickly. When you first look at it you’re thinking “ooh that’s a bit much now, are they still playing?” and actually what’s playing out is that literally from day one of birth there is a hierarchy being established between the two twins.

It’s a kind of insurance policy, if food becomes scarce and there’s not enough milk for both of them, the dominant twin will inevitably win out and fight over the subordinate twin and every time she wins a fight she becomes more dominant and it’s more likely that she’ll win the next fight over her sibling, and will just by default get more of the food from her mum.

Even though it just looks quite nasty, quite unfair and you can’t help but feel for the subordinate twin, it’s actually natural selection at play. It’s nature’s way of ensuring that at least one baby will survive. If this didn’t play out you’d have two siblings that are both trying to get enough food and maybe neither of them will get enough because they’re not dominating over the other. The strategy is absolutely fantastic and brilliant and really effective, it just seems pretty nasty, pretty unfair to us.

But again, when you unravel the reason behind it, it’s nature’s way of ensuring that life continues, even during the hardest times. You could clearly see which one was more dominant and I felt so bad for the little subordinate one, but it’s nature doing its job. Nature playing out how life needs to play out in the wild when things get rough. It was quite hard to watch, but you have to celebrate the fact that this bullying ensures that one of them will survive.

Full on isn’t it? Nature, jeepers!

Animals Behaving Badly with Liz Bonnin starts on Wednesday 18 July on BBC One at 20:00 or catch up on BBC iPlayer.

Liz Bonnin with displaying male peacock © BBC NHU
Liz Bonnin with displaying male peacock © BBC NHU


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Alexander McNamaraOnline Editor, BBC Science Focus

Alexander is the former Online Editor at BBC Science Focus.


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