Animal Gourmets

It’s tempting as Homo sapiens to think that we are special in all the universe. In many ways we are, of course, but it seems every day we learn things about our fellow inhabitants on planet Earth that remind us that intelligence, learning and emotions are not unique to our species: parrots can do arithmetic, mountain gorillas can communicate with humans using sign language, elephants grieve for lost tribe members even years after they died.

Research has also shown that both monkeys and dogs have an innate sense of “fairness” — both species stop co-operating with their human counterparts when they see that they are not being rewarded for performing a task but another “colleague” consistently receives a reward for performing the same task. (Listen to the full NPR story about how the monkeys could distinguish levels of fairness and how the dogs “tested” the researchers!)

And while we don’t have any empirical evidence to document this, we can attest that cats also have any innate sense of fairness! When Haiku gets soft canned food (she’s old now and has a hard time chewing) and he only gets dry catfood for sensitive tummies (which he has), Kiowea will glower at Haiku, then throw us humans a look that could kill (“J’accuse!!”) before stalking off under the dining table where no one can pet him and becoming “deaf.” Good thing is, cats don’t seem to hold a grudge.On a completely different level, there is also evidence of animal “gourmet” behavior. Two examples are particularly striking. The first involves a tribe of macaques (monkey-like primates) isolated in far northern Japan on the island of Koshima who have learned to season their food. Over the course of several years in the 1950s, researchers studying the tribe were tracking how behavior is learned and passed through generations. They marveled at how quickly the entire tribe learned from one ingenious female, nicknamed Imo (which means “sweet potato”), to wash sweet potatoes in a stream rather than trying to brush off the dirt with their hands. Within a few yearss, all but the most stubborn older members had copied Imo’s behavior and were washing their potatoes in fresh water before eating. But what took the researchers by surprise was that some individuals decided they liked the sweet potatoes even better when they were “salted” — the macaques would eat by the shore and repeatedly dip the potatoes in seawater before each bite (see photo)! This behavior, too, was quickly picked up by the rest of the tribe.

My mother used to give our German Shepherd, Max, the largest beef bone she could find for his “birthday” every year. First, though, she would briefly roast it and season it lightly with salt. I chided her once for doing this, “He’s a dog, Mom. You don’t have to season his food!” “But he likes it that way,” she said. Now I wonder, “maybe she was right…”

Below is an excerpt from a program featuring the famed naturalist David Attenborough visiting with the Koshima macaque tribe and offering them sweet potatoes.

The second example is the commune of organic mushroom farmers known as leaf-cutter ants. That’s right: They’re organic farmers who cultivate mushrooms to feed to their colony! The ants don’t eat the leaves they harvest and bring back to their colony, instead workers chew the leaves to fertilize a mushroom farm, and the ants eat the mushrooms. Not only that, they’ve been organic farmers for millions of years.

The following story includes footage of the leaf harvesters, the mushroom farm, and new findings about how these clever farmers control mold with antibiotics!