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

New Column at 3QD

Here’s a link to my latest monthly column at 3 Quarks Daily. Hop over and read it there now, and I’ll publish it here in a few days.

No clues here what it’s about, except that these are the photos that accompany it:

Looking Up in Svalbard

After it’s annual four month absence, the sun returned to Longyearbyen, Svalbard yesterday.

Read about it in Svalbard’s English language newspaper Ice People.

Every Second Is a Day

No, that’s not a reflection on life under Coronavirus lockdown (though some days it might be). It’s an explanation of how this absorbing compilation of images of the sun works. NASA has compiled 425 million high-resolution images into a one hour “decade in the life of the sun.”

Annular Solar Eclipse

Visible Christmas night US time across Indonesia, southern India, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Click this screen grab for video from Slooh.

Happy Summer Solstice

A midsummer ceremony at Stonehenge.

“The summer solstice occurs when the sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer, or 23.5 degrees north latitude. This will occur at exactly 11:54 am Eastern on Friday the 21st.”

Here is more from Vox.

Here is a live feed from Stonehenge.

Birds Sleep in Flight

Just fascinating that researchers can even do this:

“The researchers temporarily attached the small “flight data recorder” to the head of nesting female frigatebirds. The birds then carried the recorder during non-stop foraging flights lasting up to 10 days and 3,000 kilometers. During this time, the recorder registered the EEG activity of both brain hemispheres and movements of the head, while a GPS device on the birds’ back tracked their position and altitude.”

The scientists worked from the Galapagos Islands, where

“Like many other animals in the Galápagos Islands, the frigatebirds were remarkably calm and would even sleep as I approached to catch them for the second time.”

And it turns out that “The flight data recorder revealed that frigatebirds sleep in both expected and unexpected ways during flight.” Here’s the story.

Equinox in Ecuador

Happy Vernal Equinox, the day of the year when the sun is directly over the equator. Its direct rays are northbound, coming to warm the northern hemisphere for our local summer.

Balancing an egg on the equinox, when the sun is directly overhead, is supposed to demonstrate the temporary lack of the Coriolis effect. That this is true is thoroughly debunked around the internet. In March of 1997, though, while on the equator in Ecuador, I saw it done. Was this man just good at balancing things? Was it a trick egg? You decide. I’m believing my lying eyes. Regardless, a bit of good fun.

Quotes: On Speech in Different Cultures

They’re hanging on every word.

A 2009 study by the sociologist Tanya Stivers at the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues found that it’s the norm in most languages and cultures to avoid overlaps and to take turns in conversation, with some local variation. Delivering an affirmative response to a question within 36 milliseconds is judged ‘on-time’ in Japan, while in Denmark you can take 203 milliseconds and still be judged timely. Even though the ‘huge’ inter-turn Nordic silences observed by non-Nordic anthropologists aren’t all that large, such comments reveal that deviations from one’s own acculturated norms are seen as highly salient. In other words, what is experienced as a ‘delay’ – and thus as an indicator of dissent, since confirmations are generally delivered faster than opposing statements – differs across cultures. A congenial Danish tourist in Japan might well be puzzled to find herself taken for something of a contrarian.

What About Giraffes!?

They’re fascinating animals, that’s what.


You may not be able to talk while breathing through your nose, but a poor giraffe cannot even have a drink of water without putting itself in mortal peril. Watch giraffes before they drink. They survey the waterhole at length and in great detail before they commit, because once they do it takes effort, and precious seconds, to splay themselves into their ungainly, legs-spread stance, and just as much time to clamber back upright.

Valves in giraffes’ necks close when they put their heads down to drink, to keep all their blood from flowing to their heads. That’s why they spread their legs wide apart because they’re apt to get a little light-headed. And that is when the big cats might strike.

Rumbling along a safari track once upon a time, B. (short for Bonnetswe, our guide in the Okavango Delta) told us the single most dramatic thing he had ever seen; it was the time he watched a giraffe kill about ten lions before finally going down to the final five.

If a horse’s kick can seriously injure a man, he grinned, “Imagine the giraffe,” whose foot is as wide as a dinner plate. And so lions usually leave giraffes alone. Except when they’re drinking.

As it happens, and thankfully (if you’re the giraffe) they needn’t drink more than every second or third day. To minimize the time they have to spend in that vulnerable stance they manage to get most of the moisture they require from the leaves they eat (For this same reason they need not migrate).

Consider the browsing life of a giraffe. While other animals compete for food on the ground, up in the trees, up there, if you’re a giraffe, it’s mine, all mine. Which means giraffes can afford to be discerning eaters.

Using half meter long prehensile black tongues, they take branches in their mouths and pull their heads away, leaves along with them. Their preferred leaves are thorny acacia. They grind the thorns between their molars (In the Okavango the acacia is known as the toothpick tree. They also use their thorns as sewing needles.)

Now, every bit of explanatory science I have ever seen notes the giraffe’s tongue is prehensile, and then goes on as if everybody knows what that means. What prehensile means is “adapted for holding,” from the Latin prehendere, “to grasp.” Unlike a giraffe’s hoof or a dog’s paw, our hands are prehensile, in the sense that we have opposable thumbs.

The giraffe uses his up to eighteen-inch tongue to slide up a branch and grab a bunch of twigs and leaves (They prefer acacia, which are important sources of calcium and protein. Plus, tender acacia twigs may contain 74 percent water.). Nobody except maybe the largest elephant can reach twenty feet from the ground to eat, and you can see this at work in areas rife with giraffes, as they create a “browse line” along the trees.

But if eating is a walk in the wildlife park, with the pick of only the very best leaves in the tree, it takes a lot of leaves – and a lot of time – for a giraffe to get his fill. A 3000-pound bull needs around 75 pounds of food a day, and it may take him three-quarters of the day to get it.


Charles Darwin developed a theory of natural selection but he didn’t claim it was efficient. To the contrary, he called it clumsy, wasteful and blundering.

Clumsy or not, evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology David P. Barash points out that natural selection has to work with what it has got.

In the giraffe, he writes, “natural selection has produced a creature that on the one hand is spectacularly adapted to its peculiar ecological niche” and on the other is a poster child for Darwin’s clumsy, wasteful and blundering.

Barash points out that to pump blood to the head, seven feet over its heart, giraffes require “exceptionally high” blood pressure. To keep blood from remaining in their feet they have “evolved the equivalent of compression stockings” (which would also be useful for visiting Americans on the long plane ride to Africa to see them).

Barash notes “giraffes are fully six feet taller than other competing browsers, which would seem to argue that competitive foraging as such hasn’t been the main driving pressure behind their altitudinal evolution.” And thus he coyly presents a peculiar practice of male giraffes that he suggests could have furthered positive evolutionary selection for those long necks.

During the rut, male giraffes will stand shoulder to shoulder, parallel with one another and use their necks, as Barash puts it, “roughly like a medieval ball-and-chain weapon, or flail.”

And this can hurt. Giraffe horns, called “ossicones,” are harder than the keratin of cattle horns. They are skin-covered cartilage, actually fused to the animal’s skull, that over time hardens into bone. Only the giraffe and okapi [which deserves its own article] have ossicones.

Giraffes hammer each other with their heads until one of the opponents gives up and cedes dominance. Barash speculates that since the longer the neck, the more force behind each blow, females may prefer long-necked giraffes, and this preference may be passed along genetically. This is the “necks for sex” hypothesis.

At least that is one idea. Cynthia Moss’s 1973 Portraits in the Wild precedes Barash’s work, and back then she was having none of it. To Moss, “A necking match is a lovely sight.” She calls it “gentle sparring,” punctuated by pauses to stare into the distance for some time, affecting “a slight air of superiority.”

Moss notes too that giraffes are different in different places. She cites different researchers’ variable findings.

Giraffes may be found “singly, in twos and threes, and in herds of up to fifty.” One of the researchers she cites, Carlos Mejia, says “They are gregarious but they don’t interact.” Mejia, she says, can’t figure out why they come together at all.

She found researchers agreed that giraffes’ social structures are loose, open, “with giraffes coming and going as they please.”

On the one hand, in Mejia’s study in Tanzania herds may be made up of “males, females, and young, all males or all females, or any combination….” and a “herd rarely comprises the same individuals for more than a few consecutive days.”

On the other, “the sexes in Nairobi park show distinct preferences for different areas. The females and young stay on the plains, whereas the males tend to stay in the forested area.”


In the Thula Thula Royal Zulu Game Reserve in Kwa-Zulu Natal, we once saw a very baby calf, so newborn that it only just reached its mother’s knees, far below her body. She kept her calf tight to her side and remained most attentive to us, but that after-the-fact tenderness doesn’t cover up for the brutality of birth.

The giraffe calf receives a jarring first wake up call, being dropped head first some 5-1/2 feet from the womb to the ground, but it is soon standing, close to six feet tall and weighing 150 pounds.

And they grow so fast! In their first year some four feet, and Cynthia Moss cites reports that they can grow nine inches in a single week.


As a ruminant, the giraffe swallows its food, which must then be rechewed. Ruminants have a four-chambered stomach. Received by the reticulum, the vegetation forms into fist-sized balls and is regurgitated, chewed, swallowed and then passed into the other chambers, the rumen, omasum and abomasum, all in the process of digestion.

This is a three, four, five hour a day process that we call “chewing the cud” in the farm animals back home. All the ruminant are mammals, including yaks and goats and sheep, deer and antelopes and cows.

All that eating takes up most of a giraffes’ day. Moss tells us that in a giraffe’s day no more than five to thirty minutes at a time are spent sleeping. And even then, giraffes, especially moms with young babies, may sleep with one eye open, a practice they share with flying things like bats, ducks and chickens and, it is said, dolphins too.


If giraffes ran like most other hoofstock, their extra-long legs would be liable to get tangled up, so they move both their legs on one side and then the other, alternating sides. This is called “pacing” and has the effect of making the giraffe seem to run in slow motion when in fact those long legs cover prodigious ground. The giraffe can flee a pursuer at 55 kilometers per hour, though not for sustained periods.

In fact, the word giraffe comes from “zafarah,” for “one who walks swiftly.” Zafarah is Arabic, from the land of camels, and the camel runs like the giraffe; it also “paces.” Perhaps that similarity half accounts for the giraffes’ Latin species name, camelopardalis. The “leopardalis” part? There was an archaic belief that the giraffe was part leopard – because of those spots.


As with other animals on the African plain in general, Moss writes that “It is rare for a giraffe to die of old age; when it becomes very old and weak, it is usually taken by a predator.” Back in the 90’s, when I was very new at this, I remember a visit to Ngorongoro Crater, when a wildlife guide named Godfrey showed us a zebra with a broken leg on the edge of a herd, and said it wouldn’t make it until morning. This horrified me, and I lay in the dark and thought about it that night.

The system in the African wild is efficient, and it is surely ruthless, too. If we humans (some of us) have the good fortune to die in bed, pain-mitigated, that surely is not true on the African plains.


Got a minute to buy me a cup of coffee?