Picture this scenario: You and a co-worker are given a task to complete. The co-worker occasionally pretends to do something but leaves you with all of the drudgery.
Now imagine that your co-worker weighs several thousand pounds and has a trunk.
That’s what happened to an Asian elephant in an experiment looking at social intelligence among animals, which researchers are learning is far more complex than previously thought. In addition to deception — like that lazy elephant — there are fascinating examples of cooperation.
For instance, some dolphin moms in Australia teach their daughters to don a sea sponge on their snouts, allowing them to search the seafloor for fish without hurting their noses. You can read more about it in Scientific American’s “Secret Lives of Animals,” a special collector’s edition available on newsstands until July 10.
Many of the articles highlight just how much humans have in common with other creatures. One praises the architectural genius of termites, which build towering mounds that circulate air and offer protection from enemies. Another explains how wasps can recognize individual faces. There’s an examination of same-sex couplings in the animal kingdom, which details several of the reasons these relationships can evolve.
Then there’s the tear-jerker “When Animals Mourn” by Barbara J. King, a professor of anthropology at the College of William & Mary. It includes an anecdote about a giraffe giving birth to an infant with a deformed foot. The mom stays close to the baby, even though that means not foraging with her herd — and potentially putting her life at risk. When the young giraffe dies after four weeks, the mom is joined by 16 other females, which all help protect the body from predators.
Pet owners may want to flip directly to “The World According to Dogs,” a collection of scientific findings about man’s best friend. The most useful tidbit: If a dog won’t play with you, you’re probably just doing it wrong. Patting the floor, picking up a dog, smooching it — those are all ineffective techniques, according to a 2001 study. Instead, try a different strategy, suggests writer Julie Hecht: “The researchers found that giving chase and running away and lunging forward were associated with play 100 percent of the time.”
And don’t miss your chance to learn about the star-nosed mole, which boasts a schnozzle “ringed by 22 fleshy appendages that are usually a blur of motion,” writes Kenneth C. Catania of Vanderbilt University. Although the pink blob on its face allows the mole to “find and eat five separate prey items in a single second,” humans can be glad this feature is one thing we don’t share with animals.