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!