March 24, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

Wonders from the Animal World

Several recent stories prove that animals continue to amaze us with their tricks:

  • Elephants:  The BBC News summarized a report from Nature1 about an elephant in Kenya named Mlaika that could make “convincing truck sounds.”  The elephant lived near a road and apparently learned how to do impressions.  This is the only other case of a terrestrial mammal able to imitate external sounds besides primates (particularly humans).  See also National Geographic News and News@Nature.
  • Octopi:  MSNBC News reported a study in Science2 that observed two species of octopus able to walk on two feet – er, tentacles.  The behavior is apparently a disguise to fool sharks into thinking it is just a piece of seaweed drifting by.  The octopus uses two tentacles to walk in a stepwise fashion, and the other six to imitate the shape of algae or a coconut shell.  This behavior must be hard-wired into the octopus brain.  See also News@Nature.
  • Bats:  Science News summarized a report in the March 17 Nature about a species of vampire bat that can not only fly, but run (see also MSNBC News).  On a treadmill, they demonstrated an ability to trot by leaps and bounds.  The researchers thought this species must have re-evolved the ability to run, for some reason.  One scientist was impressed at the versatility of muscle-tendon system that give these bats the ability to both run and fly; he told Science News, “Few human-made machines can act like springs, motors, and brakes.”
  • Playful Animals:  Finally, there was a recent book review about the evolution of play in animals.  Bernd Heinrich, evaluating The Genesis of Animal Play: Testing the Limits by Gordon M. Burkhardt (MIT, 2005) in Nature,3 commented that despite the valiant effort in the book, “Working out why animals play is no easy task.” –

    A kitten batting a ball of yarn, kids on a swing, or an adult wielding a fishing-rod – few would disagree that these behaviours can be described as play.  Yet in the study of animal behaviour, the phenomenon of play is an anomaly.  It is said to be adaptive and yet it involves the expenditure of much energy, often with no apparent pay-off.  When a certain behaviour is found to have obvious pay-offs or functions it is, almost by definition, no longer ‘play’ but is defined by its function, such as foraging, predator avoidance or mating.   (Emphasis added in all quotes.)

    We know so little about play, he confessed, despite centuries of attempts to define it and fathom its functions.  It seems like senseless behavior in a world of survival, yet it is “a genuine behavioural phenomenon.”  In the end, he couldn’t decide whether animals (and humans) play for some unknown evolutionary fitness value, or just for fun.


1Poole et al., “Animal behaviour: Elephants are capable of vocal learning,” Nature 434, 455 – 456 (24 March 2005); doi:10.1038/434455a.
2Huffard et al., “Underwater Bipedal Locomotion by Octopuses in Disguise,” Science, Vol 307, Issue 5717, 1927 , 25 March 2005, [DOI: 10.1126/science.1109616].
3Bernd Heinrich, “Just for fun?” Nature 434, 273 – 274 (17 March 2005); doi:10.1038/434273a.

A game that is fun to play is to challenge Darwinists with an amazing capability of an animal and watch them try to explain it.  Then, while they tie themselves in knots, we can go play frisbee with the dog, tease the cat with a ball of string, or teach the parakeet to say Charlie is gnarly.  Wonder where we can get a recording of that elephant imitating a truck.

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Categories: Mammals

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