Unusual Friendships: Interspecies Relationships

By Maria Moss

Pho­to Cred­it: “Inter­species Bond­ing” by Sen­thi Aathavan

One not so com­mon top­ic in the broad field of ani­mal stud­ies is the inter­ac­tion between dif­fer­ent ani­mal species. Until recent­ly, any sug­ges­tion that inter­species rela­tion­ships might be based on com­pan­ion­ship would have prob­a­bly met with deri­sion and been dis­missed as anthro­po­mor­phic illu­sions. These atti­tudes, how­ev­er, are bound to change as research is grad­u­al­ly begin­ning to erode some bound­aries sep­a­rat­ing Homo sapi­ens and oth­er ani­mals. If you’re inter­est­ed (or like your stu­dents to get inter­est­ed in) inter­species com­mu­ni­ca­tion, these five videos might be the right ones to start out with:

Videos of unlike­ly ani­mal friend­ships are pop­u­lar on social media, and sci­en­tists are now con­sid­er­ing how to define such rela­tion­ships and why they are so fas­ci­nat­ing to us. The first video rais­es a num­ber of seri­ous ques­tions: How much human inter­ven­tion (for instance in the shape of deli­cious treats) is nec­es­sary for ani­mals to behave in such adorable ways? Con­sid­er the case of the ham­ster rid­ing on the back of a snake – here it’s com­plete­ly unclear whether the snake and the ham­ster are best bud­dies or whether the snake has just been fed anoth­er cute ham­ster and is sim­ply not hun­gry. Watch for your­self. Also, watch this cute tur­tle play­ing ball with a dog.

In the “Hap­py Togeth­er” video, we see a cat snug­gling up to a lizard, a goat frol­ick­ing with a baby rhi­noc­er­os, and a par­rot feed­ing spaghet­ti to a dog who can­not reach the pot on the stove. Can these inter­ac­tions be called rela­tion­ships? And can they offer more to our under­stand­ing of ani­mal com­mu­ni­ca­tion than a hefty dose of cute­ness? But see for your­self.

Anthro­pol­o­gist Bar­bara King took up the con­tro­ver­sy and sug­gest­ed three cri­te­ria for these inter­ac­tions to be called ‘rela­tion­ships’:  they must be sus­tained for a cer­tain peri­od of time;  there must be mutu­al­i­ty, with both species engaged and inter­act­ing; and cer­tain accom­mo­da­tions must take place dur­ing the inter­ac­tion (such as a mod­i­fi­ca­tion of behav­ior or com­mu­ni­ca­tion). In most pop­u­lar online videos, these cri­te­ria are clear­ly miss­ing. Not so in the one by anthro­pol­o­gist Bar­bara Smuts, who is known for her work with baboons, chim­panzees, and dol­phins. She filmed her dog Safi grad­u­al­ly mak­ing friends with Wis­ter, the don­key. Watch her video, “Dog and Don­key: An Inter­species Friendship”:

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bdEh5zYhfBw

Since ani­mals share abil­i­ties once con­sid­ered exclu­sive to humans – includ­ing tool use, count­ing, cer­tain aspects of lan­guage, and emo­tions – why would it be so out­ra­geous to sug­gest that rela­tion­ships between ani­mals gen­er­al­ly con­sid­ered arch ene­mies (or at least incom­pat­i­ble) could not only exist, but indeed devel­op into long-last­ing relationships?

Last but not least – here’s some­thing to just enjoy. This site has 24 hr. live cam­eras on all sorts of ani­mals through­out the world – just won­der­ful for your brows­er tool bar when envi­ron­men­tal and health wor­ries get you down!

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