Bees will self-isolate when they're sick, and other lessons from the social lives of animals

Salon spoke with animal behavior professor Ashley Ward about his book "The Social Lives of Animals"

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published April 2, 2022 2:00PM (EDT)

A bumblebee, chimpanzee and humpback whale (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
A bumblebee, chimpanzee and humpback whale (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Unlike some biologists, Professor Ashley Ward does not merely observe animals, but tries to figure out how — and if — they talk to each other. The renowned animal expert spends much of his professional time at exotic locales like the Great Barrier Reef and Narrabeen Lagoon, where he will observe schools of fish making instantaneous collective decisions, like simultaneously turning in a specific direction, and wonder about how fish can recognize each other. Over the years he has learned that fish use a number of overlapping systems to communicate, from their physiology to their environment.

Ward's research is at the forefront of the study of how animals socialize. Humans have a tendency to project our own systems of recognition and communication onto the animal world — yet it turns out that animals are too far from us for the comparison to always work. Fish don't smile and wave at strangers, and yaks don't feel embarrassed at a stray piece of food stuck to their beard. The field of what animal "societies" look like is still burgeoning, it turns out. 

Ward, an animal expert, teaches at the University of Sydney. In 2016 Ward co-authored "Sociality: The Behaviour of Group-Living Animals" and four years later on his own wrote "Animal Societies: How Co-Operation Conquered the Natural World." Now he is back with "The Social Lives of Animals," a book that further delves into Ward's obviously genuine passion for animal behavior. Rarely has a book delivered so forthrightly on its title: If learning about animals' social lives is what you want, Ward's book will provide.

This is not to say that all of those stories are heartwarming. For every anecdote about chimpanzees working together in ways that humans would be well-advised to emulate, there are devastating tales of elephants and wolves seeming to mourn or cockroaches experiencing loneliness. Like his earlier books, Ward strikes an important balance between letting readers into animals' minds and making it clear that the approach has limitations. We can observe that vampire bats will regurgitate their meals for hungry roostmates, or that a school of fish will act in unison, but does the former prove empathy and the latter some degree of deliberate planning?

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Ward is careful not to say, instead simply laying out the most up-to-date scientific information and trusting the readers to draw their own conclusions. Salon, as one of those readers, asked the following questions to Ward by email.

The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity and context.

Is there evidence that animals can feel empathy?

Interpreting an animal's emotional state and what its feelings are towards others is tricky, to say the least. Nonetheless, there are plenty of instances in which animals appear to show empathy. I describe some of these in the book, such as the way that rats will lend assistance to those who are experiencing some degree of hardship, or the willingness of vampire bats to provide food to hungry roostmates. Do these examples qualify as empathy? Some say yes, while others remain unconvinced.

Yet there are more widely accepted instances, for example in elephants who support sick or injured herd members and appear to grieve for them when they die. Similarly, chimpanzees give every indication of empathy in some of their dealings with members of their communities, such as when they console one another following some trauma. Regardless of the challenges of determining any animal's emotional state scientifically, it does seem unlikely that humans are the only animals capable of expressing empathy.

Even within our own species, the extent to which individuals show empathy varies enormously. Some people are happy to donate blood freely, while others have no qualms about attacking someone for the contents of their wallet.

What lessons can we draw from this? I'd suggest firstly that empathy promotes the expression of behaviors that strengthen social bonds and that, while the recipient of empathy obviously gains, we shouldn't underestimate the payoff that's gained by people who act in an empathetic manner. We're wired in such a way that doing good makes us feel good, and the same may well be true of animals who provide support. Secondly, the more we understand the animals with whom we share the planet, the more likely we are to empathize with them and that can only be a good thing.

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Are there other lessons from your book that could be applied to humans today?

I think that the overriding lesson is that we shouldn't underestimate the power of sociality. Living and cooperating in groups is one of the most widespread behavioral strategies developed by animals to help them deal with the challenges that life provides. A huge number of species across an incredibly diverse range of animal groups have adopted a social way of life, and that should give some indication of just how important it is.

We might look in awe at a flock of birds twisting and turning in apparent synchrony, or at a school of fish seeming to act in unison, but underlying this choreography is a simple set of rules that individuals use to maintain their position in the group and to avoid collisions. These same rules, honed by evolution over millions of years, have been co-opted by the makers of self-driving cars, translating the spectacular self-organization of animal groups into safe and efficient traffic systems for the future. Or we might look at how animal groups arrive at decisions, such as when bees decide on a new nest site. Often, such groups collect a diverse range of information, harvested from a large proportion of group members, to arrive at the best decision. This so-called decentralized decision-making can yield better outcomes than relying on the expertise of a single individual.

Such an approach might recommend itself to politicians or CEOs, allowing them to harness the 'wisdom of the crowd'. More generally however, we shouldn't underestimate the value of the support that's provided by being in a social group. We see this social buffering in many animals, and we know that in our own species too, having a rich and varied social life is one of the best predictors of longevity. Indeed, a strong social network is even more important in this respect than regular exercise.

Which examples of animals showing compassion, as mentioned in your book, moved you the most?

Again, we have to be wary of ascribing specific emotions or thoughts to animals, since we can't know what's going on inside their minds. Allowing for this, however, there are some incredible reports of humpback whales intervening in orca hunts. Detecting orca activity from miles away, humpbacks travel to place themselves at the epicentre of the orcas' activity, sometimes going so far as to attack the orcas with their huge pectoral flukes. It seems that humpbacks do this regardless of whether the orcas are attacking another humpback or simply another mammal, such as a sealion. Is this compassion? We simply don't know. It could be a matter of vengeance, since many humpbacks bear the scars of attacks made by orcas on them when they were calves, and perhaps the commotion of an orca hunt stirs up particular memories for them. Or perhaps they're able to recall what it was like to be the focus of an orca attack and they identify with the victim.

In a similar way, sperm whales under attack from orcas have been observed to shield a weakened group member from further injury by placing themselves in harm's way. Regardless of their motivations, or whether these examples qualify strictly as compassion, both are extraordinary — and potentially dangerous — responses that are carried out in order to aid another animal.

Do animals have "souls," to use the metaphysical term for an entity that is self-aware?

The concept of a soul doesn't have any currency in biology, but we do know that some animals are self-aware. There are a number of tests of this, one of which is the mirror self-recognition test. In this, experimenters place a small mark on an animal, at a place on the body that can't be seen directly, and then present them with a mirror. If the animal responds to this by investigating the mark on its own body, this is usually taken to mean that it understands that the image it sees in the mirror is not another individual but itself. There's a growing number of animals, including some mammals and birds, who pass this test, which implies that they are indeed self-aware.

Any investigation of animal self-awareness or consciousness is challenging — it's hard enough to read the thoughts of another person, let alone an animal — but the evidence suggests that there's more to animals that we give them credit for. We often fail to give them the benefit of the doubt in this respect. Take cattle, for example. We might regard these as lumbering, brainless creatures, which is a useful trick since it stops us empathizing with them and makes us feel less guilty about eating them. Yet we're beginning to appreciate that cattle have a much more sophisticated emotional capability than we've given them credit for, they are capable of recognizing one another, build strong social bonds, and show every sign of suffering when these bonds are broken. Are they self-aware? Perhaps so, perhaps not, but the precautionary principle would suggest that we ought to treat them — and other animals — with the compassion and respect that they're due.

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By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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