Among the Non-Humans

Here’s my most recent 3 Quarks Daily article published on 6 December, titled On the Road: Among the Non-Humans:

Cogito Ergo Sum? Welcome to the party. There’s a lot more going on out there than we sometimes think: Cephalopods memorize, learn, invent, and play; indeed, they acquire information about the outside world while still in their eggs. • The small, flowering thale, or mouse-ear cress, can detect the vibrations caused by caterpillars munching on it and so release oils and chemicals to repel the insects. • The fruit fly Drosophila shows evidence of depression if it gets too hot. • Plants discern the difference between blue and red light, and use this information to know which direction to grow. They differentiate between the dimming scarlet light of sunset and the brightening orange light of sunrise, to determine when to flower. • Pigs comprehend symbolic language, plan for the future and discern the intentions of others. They bore easily and show a clear preference for novelty. • When researchers arranged oat flakes in the geographical pattern of cities around Tokyo, slime mold constructed nutrient channeling tubes that closely mimicked Tokyo’s metro rail. • Some plants can feel you touching them. • Cuvier’s beaked whales can  dive to 10,000 feet and stay there, at tremendous pressure, for up to two hours. In 2020 scientists recorded a Cuvier’s beaked whale staying below the water for 3 hours 42 minutes. • The nearly blind star-nosed mole, the world’s fastest eater, can find and gobble down an insect or worm in a quarter of a second. It hunts by bopping its star against the soil as quickly as possible, touching 10 or 12 different places in a single second. • The 10 centimeter long cleaner wrasse, a reef fish, has joined great apes, bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, Eurasian magpies and a particular Asian elephant in exhibiting self-awareness.

• Some sauropod dinosaurs had necks stretching up to 11 metres (36 feet) long. • A monkey community on Kōjima island near the southern tip of Japan washes sweet potatoes in the sea, where they acquire a salty taste. This behavior is passed from one generation of monkeys to the next. This is cultural behavior. • By the age of five a chimpanzee named Ai learned eleven colors and that Arabic numerals can represent numbers. Ai can, for example, assign the label “Red/Pencil/5” when five red pencils are shown to her. • Near the Indian city of Kannauj certain plants secrete fatty acids into the soil to slow the growth of nearby plants, reducing competition when water is scarce. • Hyraxes can stare into the sun, have tiny tusks, armpit nipples, and excrete a weird pee/poop substance in their group latrines used by perfumers and also as a folk remedy for epilepsy. • The oldest known wild bird on earth is a female Laysan Albatross named Wisdom. Scientists put a leg band on Wisdom in 1956, when she was already at least five years old. That puts her age at at least 70 years. In late 2020, Wisdom returned to her breeding grounds on Midway Island and successfully hatched and raised a chick, her 40th known child. • The tube worm takes advice from bacteria. It spends its earliest days drifting among plankton but selects where to metamorphose into its adult form by monitoring chemical signals released by bacteria. That suggests the bacteria are getting something in return. Speculation: the bacteria are helping to assure new habitat, which the growing body of the tubeworm will provide.  Giraffes’ eyes are among the largest of terrestrial mammals’, they can see in color and over great distances frontally, and their peripheral vision is so wide-angled they can essentially see behind themselves. Their mouths are like a set of human hands, with thick, prehensile lips and 18-inch-long, prehensile tongues which can together grasp a leafy branch and then deftly pluck away the leaves while avoiding intervening thorns. • The shaggy ink cap mushroom is capable of erupting through asphalt and lifting heavy paving stones overnight, although they are not themselves a tough material. No one knows how they do it. • Some fungi species are able to harness radioactivity as a source of energy, similar to how plants use sunlight to grow. • The bar-tailed godwit migrates more than 7,000 miles annually between New Zealand and Alaska. • Birds may dodge storms by listening to infrasounds, low-frequency sounds inaudible to humans. Golden-winged warblers in the central and southeastern United States flew up to 9,300 miles in 2014 to evade an outbreak of tornadoes that killed 35 people and caused more than $1 billion in damage. The birds fled at least 24 hours before any foul weather hit, leaving scientists to deduce they had heard the storm system from more than 250 miles away. • Sub-Antarctic crested caracaras are rumored to spread wildfires by dropping burning sticks in dry grass and feasting on the ensuing stream of animal refugees. • Chimpanzees use medicinal plants. They consume fruits with antimicrobial properties; sometimes they combine them with other substances to reduce the toxicity. They eat flowers with antibiotic properties or leaves with antiparasitic ones, which act as laxatives or even induce uterine contractions. They also tear off bark and lick the resin to kill internal worms. • The peacock mantis shrimp’s limbs are so light and tough that scientists study them in the hope of creating new protective materials for human use. The shrimp uses them to stun or crack open prey, dig burrows, defend itself from predators, and fight against other shrimp. Its hammering is incredibly rapid, precise, and brutal: a speed of 100 kilometers per hour. The motion is among the fastest in the natural world — as if the little beast were firing bullets with a force of impact thousands of times its body weight. The attack occurs so rapidly, it’s invisible to the human eye. • One male oceanic dolphin was seen carrying a dead calf, accompanied by two female dolphins off the coast of Hawaii. No one knows whether the male killed the calf, which was thought to be the infant of the younger female. But by holding the body, he ensured the females stayed with him. • Puffins have two distinct phases of their lives: four months on land to breed, with the rest of the year spent out at sea. • Many young elephants who’d watched their mothers and relatives being killed went on to exhibit symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. • Many fish see four major colours; humans only see three. Some see polarised light, some see ultraviolet. Some, such as flounders, move their eyes independently, processing two image fields. • Bees can add and subtract. They understand nothing — that is, the concept of nothing. • Boasting a wingspan of around five feet and the ability to fly at speeds surpassing Usain Bolt in his prime, the black vulture Coragyps atratus can consume 140g of Brazilian household waste a day. • A group of zebras is collectively called a dazzle. • The genus of jumping spiders called Portia prefers to hunt other spiders, employing a clever trick. Females build nests in curled-up dead leaves suspended in air by silk attached to rocks or vegetation. Courting males crawl down silk suspension ropes, stand on top of the nest and shake it in a specific way, luring the female into an ambush. • Nearly every insect species has at least one species of parasitoid wasp that specializes in eating other insects alive. “They don’t just kill them, they want to keep them alive for as long as possible.” • Sea urchins, insects, spiders, crabs, snails, octopuses, fish, birds and mammals, among others, use tools. • Kites and falcons in the outback pick up burning sticks from bush fires, carry these smoking embers in their beaks to areas of dry grass and drop them, starting new fires, triggering frenzied evacuations by small animals – which are promptly snatched from above by the waiting raptors. Indigenous Australians start fires in order to flush out game. Which came first? • Some flowers tailor their petal shape, color, texture or nectar’s scent or flavor to attract a single pollinating species. • In Japan, one crow population uses traffic to crack open walnuts: The crows drop a nut in front of cars at intersections, and when the light turns red, they swoop in to scoop up the exposed flesh. • The female tsetse fly gestates her young internally, one at a time, and gives birth to them live. When each extravagantly pampered offspring pulls free of her uterus after nine days, mother and child are pretty much the same size. “It’s the equivalent of giving birth to an 18-year-old.” • Huge, burly, and equipped with a venomous sting, robber flies occasionally catch and kill hummingbirds. • Flies enjoy sex. Some male fruit flies were paired with females that were receptive to sex, while others were paired with females that rejected sexual advances. Both groups of males were then given access to a solution laced with alcohol and another lacking it. The sexually frustrated males consumed more alcohol than their sexually satisfied compatriots. • The tiny Toxeus magnus jumping spider, also known as the black ant mimicking jumper, looks like an ant, walks like an ant and even waves its front legs in the air like a pair of antennas. Females secrete a milk-like fluid to feed their offspring, which contains about four times as much protein as cow’s milk, prompting scientists to reconsider what it means to be a mammal. • The Antarctic blackfin icefish thrives in the Southern Ocean at temperatures just above seawater’s freezing point with no scales, blood as clear as water and bones so thin, you can see its brain through its skull. • In the mountains of Central America, the Alston’s singing mouse produces arias of loud chirps that can last as long as 16 seconds, and each mouse produces its own distinctive song. • The flower Impatiens pallida, among others, devotes a greater share of resources to growing leaves than roots when put with strangers – a tactic apparently geared towards competing for sunlight, an imperative that is diminished when growing next to siblings. • The marine bacterium Vibrio fischeri can distinguish when it is alone or in a group. It produces light through bioluminescence, similar to fireflies. If these bacteria are alone, they make no light. But when a group grows to a certain number, all of them produce light simultaneously. • To maintain its stealth, a bioluminescent anglerfish in the genus Oneirodes reflects as little as 0.044 percent of the light it encounters. The rest gets lost in a labyrinth of light-swallowing pigments until it effectively disappears. • Gobies, a type of fish, seem to remember complicated routes for almost 40 days. Several species, especially guppies, can recognise other individual fish, evidence of complex social engagement. • Chickadees produce alarm calls when they detect a potential predator to warn their fellow chickadees using their namesake “chick-a-dee” alarm call. The number of “dee” notes at the end of this alarm call indicates the danger level of a predator. “Chick-a-dee-dee” with only two “dee” notes may indicate a rather harmless great gray owl. When chickadees see a pygmy owl, they increase the number of “dee” notes and call “chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee.” The number of sounds serves as an active anti-predation strategy. • Prairie dogs use their twittering alarm calls to describe approaching humans in detail, including information about their size, the color of their hair and clothes, and any objects they might be carrying. The intraspecies conversations of octopuses, bees, and many birds follow a recognizable grammatical structure. Dolphins have unique names for one another, as do certain species of parrots, monkeys, and bats. • Chaser the border collie could identify and retrieve more than a thousand different toys by name and understand elements of English grammar. • Plants fight back. When caterpillars graze European maize, for example, the plants emit the volatile β-caryophyllene, which attracts parasitic wasps. The wasps lay their eggs inside the caterpillars, slowing their feeding and eventually, when the eggs hatch a few weeks later, killing them. • Some mushrooms can hunt. When food becomes scarce, some fungi build traps consisting of sticky loops or poisonous droplets, and with special substances, they lure nematodes into these traps. • When the male Great Argus pheasant runs into a possible mate, he clears a six-yard stage on the forest floor, picking up leaves, twigs and roots with his little white beak, finally beating his wings to blow away the debris. He struts around theatrically, pecking at the clear stage. Then he twirls out his wings, transforming himself into a dazzlingly large, intricately patterned circle, and starts  vibrating, shaking and shimmering for up to 15 seconds before resuming his old form and returning to his routine, pecking the ground. • There have been several instances of an animal of one species helping an animal of a different species. For example, a hippopotamus was recorded lifting up a duckling that was unsuccessfully trying to get out of a pond, a bear rescued a crow from drowning and a cat attacked a dog that was trying to maul a toddler. • Spiders can fly, sort of, by electrostatic repulsion. They climb to an exposed point, raise their abdomens to the sky, extrude strands of silk, and float away. This is called ballooning. Ballooning spiders operate within the planet’s electric field. When their silk leaves their bodies, it typically picks up a negative charge. This repels the similar negative charges on the surfaces on which the spiders sit, creating enough force to lift them into the air. Spiders have been found 2.5 miles up in the air, and 1,000 miles out to sea. • The African crested rat chews on the bark of the poison arrow tree, then spits the masticated chunks all over its own hairs. It’s the only mammal we know of that uses toxins from a plant to make itself venomous. • The wings of Chinese tasar moths have scales that function like acoustic tiles. They absorb the sonar waves of predatory bats, making it very difficult for the bats to detect the moths with echolocation. • The Greenland shark, the eqalussuaq in Greenlandic, is the longest-living vertebrate on earth. Two hundred year-old eqalussuaqs are common, and some have been alive more than twice as long. A few still alive were probably born before Shakespeare, before the invention of telescopes or newspapers. Their nostrils aren’t needed for breathing (they have gills) but are used for smelling. They can smell small prey up to a mile away. 


See the photos here and around 700 others in the Animals and Wildlife gallery at

A Good Day for Giraffes

As a major giraffe fan, it makes me happy to read this good news in the most recent newsletter from the Amboseli Trust for Elephants:

“The 18th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species took place in August in Geneva, Switzerland. CITES was established by the UN in 1975 to ensure that international trade in wild species of flora and fauna would not threaten their survival as species. Currently 183 nations are parties to CITES. ATE and other NGOs either attend the CITES meeting as “non-governmental observers,” or advisers from the sidelines. Either way, we work to persuade attending governments to conserve species, not profit from their destruction.

This most recent meeting attained some important victories for vulnerable animals. Proposals by southern African nations to reopen the international ivory trade by allowing the resumption of ivory stockpile sales were defeated, as was a proposal to reopen trade in white rhino horn. The conference stressed the need for governments to address the existence of legal ivory markets, and the EU promised to tackle the huge market across its 28 member states. Australia also announced its intention to ban the domestic trade in ivory and rhino horn.

In a huge victory, giraffes were granted protection from unregulated international trade. This is an historic move, and marks the first time giraffes have been granted such protection. Giraffe numbers have dramatically declined (in some areas, up to 40%) during the last 30 years, due to habitat loss, poaching, disease and war or civil unrest.”

On The Road: The Maneater Of Mfuwe

Here is my monthly column as it appeared Monday on 3QuarksDaily.

by Bill Murray

Just about everyone who visits the famous South Luangwa wildlife park drives through Mfuwe, Zambia. A mere wide spot in the road, a trifle to tourists, Mfuwe holds a fearsome, searing memory. It will forever be known for the Man-Eater of Mfuwe, a lion that killed six people over two months in 1991.

There are more famous man-eating tigers than lions in the literature. Tigers and people live in closer proximity in India than lions and people in Africa. I’ve seen an estimate of as many as 10,000 people killed by tigers in India in the nineteenth century.

The Champawat Tigress, the most infamous Panthera tigris, was said to have killed 436 people before she was killed in Nepal, then part of British colonial India, in 1911. After a spree of terror, hunters having failed to kill her, the authorities ultimately called in the Nepalese army. In Kenya’s Tsavo Park two lions killed perhaps two dozen Indian railroad construction workers in 1898, halting the colonizing Brits’ project to connect the port of Mombasa with the interior of British East Africa.

But the Mfuwe man-eater was no colonial-era killer. Its attacks occurred less than thirty years ago, thoroughly terrorizing an overgrown village of scarcely a thousand a spare 60 miles west of the border with Malawi, oriented toward the Malawian capital, Lilongwe. Lusaka, the Zambian capital, is 300 miles away.

The night of the first attack the killer struck two boys walking along a road at night. One escaped, but responding game rangers found only clothing and fragments of the other boy’s skull. A few days later a lion crashed through the door of a woman’s rondavel on the edge of the village. The second victim.

The third attack was nearly foiled by an edgy ranger, who fired his gun, but the victim, a young boy, was bitten and died of his wounds. Three more attacks were to come. People began to believe this was no ordinary lion, but a devil or a medicine man taking the shape of a lion.


Today the Mfuwe lion is stuffed and on display at the Field Museum in Chicago. 3.2 meters long, 1.2 meters at the shoulder and estimated at 249 kilos, it was male, and it was mane-less, similar in that way to the man-eating lions of Tsavo.

At first the lack of a mane led people to assume they were after a lioness. Early in the Mfuwe terror, people believed they’d got the man-eater, when a Japanese hunter brought down a lioness. But then the man-eater entered a woman’s hut and stole a bag of laundry, taking the bag into the village and roaring over it. This lion was clearly male.


Wayne Hosek wasn’t the first to try to kill the cursed thing. Other professionals, including the Japanese hunter, tried before Hosek.

Remarkably, as a child the man who ultimately brought down the Mfuwe man-eater studied the man-eaters of Tsavo, also on exhibit at the Field Museum. Wayne Allen Hosek was born in Chicago.

He says the Field Museum has always been one of his favorite places on earth. As a boy, Hosek spent days in front of the Tsavo lions, trying to imagine confronting the real thing, as he imagined it, with nothing but a few seconds separating him from their wrath.

Hosek’s battle with the Mfuwe man-eater stretched across the first nine days of September, 1991. First he met the hunter who had shot the lioness. Everyone hoped that solved the problem of this particularly evil Panthera leo but days later, two days before the hunter returned home to Japan, the sixth victim was attacked.

Hosek’s early description, a pdf in the Field Museum’s archives, is incomplete, reading as an early draft of an incomplete story (Hosek later wrote a book.). There’s even a place in the .pdf where his narrative reads “SECTION TO COME.”

In that section perhaps Hosek would have introduced us to his hunting companions, for later we are assumed to know “Charl” (Charl Beukes, another professional hunter), who was with Hosek the night the animal was killed.

Hosek visited villages where the lion had been spotted, talking to people, learning the cat’s behavior. The killer had dragged the last victim, a woman named Jesleen, from her rondavel in the Luangwa valley village of Ngozo.

The day after Jesleen was killed the lion walked into her home in the middle of the day and took a white bag with some of her clothing. People frantically beat on pots and pans to scare the lion away. It played with the bag like a cat with catnip. They found the bag in a dry river bed a mile from Jesleen’s house.

Village women used to wash their family’s clothes there by walking to the middle of the riverbed and digging down to water. Hosek writes, on this day “(e)ven the hornbills lounging in the riverbed seemed to be giving the bag a wide berth.”

Phillip Caputo, in Ghosts of Tsavo, writes that at this point Hosek’s trackers wouldn’t look him in the eye, two of them wouldn’t look at him at all, as if they resented his getting them into all this.

The elders decided Jesleen’s bag was bewitched and the lion was a sorcerer or a demon, “or at least demon possessed,” and villagers would not go near the bag. Authorities instituted a curfew at 5:00 over an area of some 65 square miles.

The hunters laid bait near the bag, hoping to keep the lion near, and retired to camp. Hosek’s companion Charl counseled, “Remember to follow-up HARD as soon as you make your first shot.” Hosek, a devout Christian, woke repeatedly that night, and each time he prayed.

The next day they built a blind using bamboo and elephant grass cut by villagers. Charl shot a small hippo and laid a haunch in the riverbed. They spent an uneventful night. The lion didn’t take the bait, but by day the hunters found its tracks a scant fifty feet from the blind.

The following day the hunters holed up in the blind around 3:30. Hosek describes “blind sleep” – “my eyes were closed, but my ears seemed to have acquired an ability to listen to each and every sound.”

Again they didn’t see the lion, but by now, “(t)he man-eater had become the center of my life’s purpose.”

Too many ineffectual cloistered hours led to a new strategy. They would build a new blind elsewhere, hang bait and leave the blind empty, in hopes the lion would get comfortable at the absence of its stalkers. They arranged for others to build the blind so the cat wouldn’t get the scent of the hunters.

Charl selected the site. He felt that the lion was clever enough never to let the hunters spy him standing still, and that it would be moving whenever it allowed them to see it. Gauging their being shut away in a blind against a lion on the prowl, he thought ultimately they would have no more than 2.5 to 3 seconds to take their shot.

When the hunters made their way to the new blind they saw that the man-eater had torn off part of the bait and eaten it in a footpath used by villagers. As Hosek tried to take a photo of the lion’s tracks, his camera broke.

As a Christian, he took it as “possibly a sign from the Lord.” The villagers saw the lion as a witch or a demon, after all. They had their spirituality. Hosek had his.

On the day of the lion’s death, the hunters entered the new blind, again about 3:30. In less than an hour Charl spotted movement in tall grass. The lion approached in line with the trunk of a tree, masking its visibility.

Hosek writes that he was “in a quick stride, almost trotting.” Hosek shot the lion below and behind its left shoulder, and it was dead. One of the trackers sang the Kunda tribal lion song and villagers converged on the place, spitting on the lion, beating it with sticks, and lit celebratory fires.


This is the story from Hosek’s memoirs, but I have found out a little more. Some time ago I asked Adrian Carr of the Norman Carr Safaris clan, about Hosek’s account. Carr figured in the man-eater story, but downplayed his role. He sat up on watch for the lion one night, saw it, but never managed to get a shot.

Here is Carr’s perspective:

“I had got involved because one of my workers insisted that I come and see something.

“He had got up in the night and gone outside for a wee. The lion had tried to catch him but somehow he got back in to his hut – the lion followed him in and he miraculously managed to get back out again – though the door. All this in the pitch black with all the terrifying growling. It was a small mud hut without windows and luckily he had been alone. The doors are on the inside opening inwards – so when he got back out he pulled the door closed and the lion was stuck inside. This is what he wanted me to see. It was like a bomb had gone off inside – the lion had totally destroyed everything including the roof from where he had eventually got out.

“I then put a bait up nearby (a hippo haunch) and the same lion fed on it that night – he had a big distinctive track.

“I decided to sit up for him the next night.

“My plan was to commandeer one of the cylindrical grain storage bins (kokwe) around the village as a blind or shelter. It was September (I think) and the grain storage bins were mostly empty. Traditionally they are made from split bamboo and woven together very tightly. They are quite heavy, very strong and I felt (in the daylight) impregnable. I would plonk myself down on the ground 30 yards from the bait – the basket, 6 feet in diameter and 8 feet high would be placed over me, I would cut a little window to shoot through and await developments….

“I was a bit late arriving that afternoon, – a small crowd gathered. I dispatched 5 strong men to go and collect a kokwe and received some quizzical looks…

“I watched as one guy sauntered up to the kokwe and effortlessly lifted it up above his head!

“Oh dear…. !! Made of millet stalks instead of bamboo! That’s like pith and balsa wood with no strength at all.

“Too late however to do anything else if I was to retain my casual demeanor and reputation of aloof imperturbability and disdain for the magical beliefs that are always associated with man-eating lions.

“Privately, of course, I was seriously doubting the wisdom of the whole enterprise!

“He came soon after midnight. Or at least that’s when I first became aware of him. I could hear his footfall circling my paper-bag fortress. My two heavy rifles, three flashlights and a handgun were little comfort. It went quiet for a bit and then I heard him feeding on the bait. I let him settle in to the feeding for 20 minutes and then put the light on him. I still have the mental image of him standing up on his hind legs, very big and tall, maneless and pale. I was ready to shoot but the instant the light hit him he dropped and was gone. He never came back and Charl and Wayne got him two nights later.”


Adrian Carr graciously shared his story by email, kindly arranged by Norman Carr Safaris, which is now a company called Time and Tide. My thanks to the Carr family and Adrian Carr. 

Photos © the author from

Animals with Personality

I’ve been reading lately about the prevalence of traits we think of as human traits in animals. The idea of animal “personality” is problematic by anthropomorphic definition. But still. Here are a few creatures we’ve met down through the years. For me, it’s hard to imagine them not having personalities.

Click them for bigger versions at

Do Animals Think?

My last African visit set me thinking about humans’ and animals’ place in the world. This is an early bit from my upcoming book on travel in Africa, due in early 2017.


During Europeans’ first blunderbuss intrusions onto the African continent they denigrated the natives and abused wildlife. With the human superiority we’ve all been taught most of us still fail to consider the astonishing abilities other living things have.

Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, gives some examples:

  • Bacteria compare sugars, a food source, and move toward higher concentrations using a flagellum, a microscopic tentacle, to propel themselves.
  • The cataglyphis ant uses an internal odometer to keep track of outbound steps to then find its way home.
  • Honeybees, on finding a food source, perform a “waggle dance” to give directions to other bees.
  • Rats seem capable of creating maps, triangulating through their environment. Certain cells fire corresponding to points on a grid, others fire according to the direction the rat is facing and then a third neuron fires as a rat moves through an area it recognizes.
  • Albatrosses, petrels and other seabirds seem to sniff their way across oceans to  return to the obscure rock they call home.
  • Some migratory birds seem to navigate by the pole point, the due north spot in the sky around which the sky rotates.
  • And most remarkably to me, green turtles seem to use their own internal maps of the Atlantic Ocean. We will talk about a magical night we spent with egg-laying turtles on Ascension Island later in the book.


“Cogito ergo sum,” declared Rene Descartes, and that was that. “I think, therefore I am.”

Those three Latin words made the French philosopher sound so smart that the term Cartesian Logic has survived him by 400 years. But Descartes also thought language was a requirement for thought.

He wrote, “There has never been an animal so perfect as to use a sign to make other animals understand something which bore no relation to its passions; and there is no human being so imperfect as not to do so. . . . The reason animals do not speak as we do is not that they lack the organs but that they have no thoughts. It cannot be said that they speak to each other but we cannot understand them; for since dogs and some other animals express their passions to us, they would express their thoughts also if they had them. (CSMK 575)”

Cogito ergo sum for humans but not for animals.

That is not so smart.



In 1967 Thomas Struhsaker, then of the University of California, Berkeley, discovered that vervet monkeys have different calls with different meanings for different situations. In Stanford University professor of biology and neurology Robert Sapolsky’s example, they use different sounds to mean “Aiiiiii!, predator on the ground, run up the tree,” and “Aiiiiii!, predator in the air, run down the tree.”

Carl Safina has written a beautiful book called Beyond Words, exploring what animals think and feel. In it he writes that the vervets of Amboseli park have words for leopard, eagle, snake, baboon, other predatory mammal and unfamiliar human, among others.

Safina wonders why “… we maintain a certain insecure insistence that ‘animals’ are not like us – though we are animals.” When researchers played a recording of a family or bond group member,” Safina says, “elephants would return the call and move to the sound, but when they heard the recorded sound of strangers they “bunched defensively, raising their trunks to smell.” He thinks “Each elephant in Amboseli probably knows every other adult in the population.”


To biologist and author E. O. Wilson, “The human mind did not evolve as an externally guided progression toward either pure reason or emotional fulfillment. It remains as it has always been, an instrument of survival that employs both reason and emotion.”

If the mind evolved as an instrument of survival for humans why would evolution be different for animals? Why are chattering baboons not expressing fear of the lion down below as a way to further their survival?  Why is not the entwining of elephant trunks expressive of the emotions involved in friendship?



We say that humans have the capability for “complex symbolic thought … because showing … concern for the dead reveals the value placed on social-group members, as well as the cognitive ability to represent group members even after they have died.”

Elephants, too, have been seen to bury their dead. There are stories of elephants standing vigil over their dead mates, kicking and prodding them as if trying to bring them back to life, as if they wish their mates to hold on to life no less than humans.

To Safina beliefs like heaven, hell and reincarnation are “devices for keeping the deceased undead. The main thing humans seem to believe about death is: you never really die.”

Safina intuits some things backed up by research.

Natalie Emmons, a researcher at Boston University, writes that it appears people everywhere view death as a transition:

“belief in eternal life goes back tens of thousands of years. Some of the oldest documented evidence shows that modern humans were intentionally burying their dead with animal bones and shell beads in the caves of ancient Israel 100,000 years ago.

To which physicist Alan Lightman says,

“We humans living on our one planet wring our hands about the brevity of our lives and our mortal restraints, but we do not often think about how improbable it is to be alive at all. Of all the zillions of atoms and molecules in the universe, we have the privilege of being composed of those very, very few atoms that have joined together in the special arrangement to make living matter. We exist in that one-billionth of one-billionth. We are that one grain of sand on the desert.”



In The Old Way, A Story of the First People, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas considers where humans rank in the elemental hierarchy of protecting oneself in the animal world. “Our fists and feet are too soft to deliver meaningful blows, we have no claws, and over time our teeth have become too small to act as a deterrent.”

Safina seconds the notion. “Human senses have evidently dulled during civilization.” Meanwhile, “Many animals are superhumanly alert.”

The poet Amit Majmudar writes that “Animals are routinely superhuman in one way or another. They outstrip us in this or that perceptual or physical ability, and we think nothing of it.”

He hopes the time comes when we no longer regard animals as “inferior, preliminary iterations of the human—with the human thought of as the pinnacle of evolution so far—and instead regard all forms of life as fugue-like elaborations of a single musical theme.”


Photos from

My two previous books are:

Common Sense and Whiskey: Modest Adventures Far from Home and Visiting Chernobyl