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Animal Alliances: Cooperation or Domestication?

Segueing with Greg’s observation of ‘freaky’ performances across different animal species, here’s an article New Scientist published last month re. an unusual behavior recently observed by zoologists in the grasslands of Africa: A group of gelada monkeys mingling peacefully with a pack of Ethiopian wolves, making a picture more appropriate for an artistic depiction of the Garden of Eden, than an natural life documentary.

The monkeys don’t seem to be in any way perturbed by the proximity of the wolves, and the canids don’t display the predatory behavior one would expect of them. Instead of attacking the monkeys or their small offspring, the wolves seem to take advantage of their presence to capture rodents which crop op from their burrows between the grass. This peculiar alliance was first observed by primatologist Vivek Venkataraman, at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, during fieldwork at Guassa plateau in the highlands of north-central Ethiopia. The scientist even speculates whether this is the beginning of a form of domestication, similar to what happened between the ancestors of dogs and our own species, between 40,000 to 11,000 years ago.

“You can have a wolf and a gelada within a metre or two of each other and virtually ignoring each other for up to 2 hours at a time,” says Venkataraman. In contrast, the geladas flee immediately to cliffs for safety when they spot feral dogs, which approach aggressively and often prey on them.

But if this is a domestication, then who is taming who?

Given the increase of successful rodent captures when they are hunting among the monkeys –67% success rate, in contrast to just 25% when they’re hunting alone– it’s clear what the wolves get from their end of the deal, even though it’s not yet clear how the monkeys help in attracting the rodents; perhaps their grazing in the vegetation ‘flushes’ them out of their nests, or maybe the wolves manage to ‘blend in’ among the monkeys undetected thanks to their similar body size.

But what of the monkeys? Venkataram is not sure what they exactly get from tolerating the wolves’ presence, since they would probably be unable to deter other predators such as leopards or other kinds of feral dogs.

Perhaps –and this is MY own speculation here– the wolves could still be useful to the monkeys by detecting a potential threat more quickly, given their more acute senses of hearing and smell? I’d presume the same might have happened millennia ago, when the packs of wolves following the nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers would undeliberately alert the humans about a nearby presence with their cries or reactions of alertness.

Or maybe the monkeys just like to have the wolves around, for reasons we can’t even imagine yet.

Whatever the reason, biologists are starting to suspect these types of trans-species cooperation between predator and non-predator animals might be more common than we think; which would not only stretch our current definition of Symbiosis, but prove Thomas Hobbes’s vision of Nature wrong, when he described it as “red in tooth and claw.”

Maybe we don’t have to wait the ‘End of Days’ to watch the lion and the lamb lying together… which no doubt would be just as cute as a polar bear playing with a sledding dog!


  1. Foxiness is Next to Human-ness
    I have lived in rural and semi-rural settings for a lot of my life and have run into a couple of foxes in that time that behave as semi-domesticates, ie they have not much fear of getting close to people and even their dogs despite the fact that the dogs may be hostile to foxes. Foxes can be very discerning and nonchalant about humans and their domiciles. Nearly every hill person I have ever met here in the Ozarks has a story about a fox that almost became a member of the household or at least a close observer – probably because it figured there might be some food in the bargain. Human settlements also often harbor rodents, so foxes get in the habit of poking around to get at those too.

    The Fox Domestication Project

    “He chose as his experimental model a species taxonomically close to the dog but never before domesticated: Vulpes vulpes, the silver fox. Belyaev’s fox-breeding experiment occupied the last 26 years of his life. Today, 14 years after his death, it is still in progress. Through genetic selection alone, our research group has created a population of tame foxes fundamentally different in temperament and behavior from their wild forebears. In the process we have observed some striking changes in physiology, morphology and behavior, which mirror the changes known in other domestic animals and bear out many of Belyaev’s ideas.”

    “Now, 40 years and 45,000 foxes after Belyaev began, our experiment has achieved an array of concrete results. The most obvious of them is a unique population of 100 foxes (at latest count), each of them the product of between 30 and 35 generations of selection. They are unusual animals, docile, eager to please and unmistakably domesticated. When tested in groups in an enclosure, pups compete for attention, snarling fiercely at one another as they seek the favor of their human handler. Over the years several of our domesticated foxes have escaped from the fur farm for days. All of them eventually returned. Probably they would have been unable to survive in the wild.”

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