Coinciding Interests – The Web of Life (12)

Coinciding Interests

“Communication is the reason cooperation occurs.” ~ Flemish microbiologist Christoph Adami

The form of communication varies depending on the relation between sender and receiver. With coinciding interests comes sotto voce communication: soft signals, sometimes so inconspicuous as to be sharing a secret. Communication of convergence is seldom energetic.

The communication of potential conflict is typically of an entirely different nature: energetic, boisterous displays, sometimes leading to violence. But sometimes communication of conflicting interests comes down to a simple display.

When chased by a potential predator, gazelles and other ungulates stot to show their strength. A stot is a certain gait of quadrupeds that involves jumping into the air.

Stotting is an advertisement of health. It slows an animal down from its regular running stride, and thus potentially increases the odds of being caught, but it honestly signals that an animal is strong.

Stotting works. Gazelle hunters, such as African wild dogs and cheetahs, discriminate based on stotting rate, concentrating on spotty stotters who may be more easily caught.

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African wild dogs are especially savvy predators. They hunt in packs, using vocalizations for ad-hoc coordination. This lets them bring down larger and faster prey than they could otherwise.

The cheetah is known for its speed, but it does not just rely upon quickness to run down its prey. Cheetahs anticipate the escape tactics of their specific quarry. Agility is as important as speed in bringing prey down.

While the cheetah is absolutely the fastest land animal, the animal quickest in relative terms is the tiny mite Paratarsotomus smacropalpis (0.5 mm), which can move 322 body lengths per second compared to the cheetah’s measly 16.

 Feeding Offspring

Many species care for their young to considerable effort. Conflicts commonly arise in a family over resources.

Each offspring demands food at the expense of its siblings. Parents decide how to allocate limited food by determining which offspring are in greatest need.

There are numerous begging signals in various species. Therein lies an opportunity for deception: a youngling may signal a greater hunger than it really has. Nature sometimes does not permit such deceit.

Young canaries have a conspicuous and honest begging signal: a mouth gape with a red lining; the red lining from a suffusion of blood near the surface. A parent puts food in the reddest mouth it can find among its young.

When a chick has eaten, its mouth lining pales, as blood is transferred to aid digestion. So, redness of mouth is an honest signal of hunger. Canary parents that allocate food on that signal have the best chance of rearing the most chicks.


Relationships between organisms require that individuals recognize one another. Such recognition is common even in early-evolved life.

At the cellular level, viruses know exactly where they are going. Among the variety of cell types, a virus recognizes its specific target. A virus makes its way via discrete inquiries with other cell types.

Plants recognize siblings with whom they share soil.

Social animals have especial need to recognize one another. Individuals are important where relationships exist for any duration, especially in any community with a social hierarchy.

The dark paper wasp, native to North America, is best known for making its paper nests below the roofs of houses (or in trees or foliage). A female founds her own colony. She’s no good at recognizing faces.

But her close cousin – the golden paper wasp – is. Goldie females form group colonies: building a joint nest and laying eggs there. Clustering queens squabble and determine a dominance hierarchy. So, it comes as no surprise that golden paper wasps, and other social wasps, remember and recognize individual faces; even human faces. While rigid exoskeletons disallow facial expressions, wasp heads do have different shapes, sizes, and features.

Birds recognize one another. Among a colony that can number up to half a million members, mated penguin partners find each other.

Ravens not only recognize each other, they long remember their affinity in individual relationships, even after being separated for years.

Practically all social mammals recognize each other individually. How they do so is sometimes surprising. Bats recognize one another by their echolocation calls, which have signature individuality.


“Kinship is a basic organizing principle of all societies.” ~ American biologists David Pfennig & Paul Sherman

Sociality begins with family. All kinds of plants and animals know their kin.

Plants typically grow faster in the presence of relations than among strangers. Chemical cues released by roots let relatives recognize one another.

Almost all animals know their relations. Sea squirts lack an identifiable brain but know when they encounter kin.

Western toad tadpoles school with siblings. They also know the smell of their natal home.

 Sage Rats

The sage rat is a ground squirrel that lives in the mountains of the western United States. Adult males are nomadic.

The ladies run a nepotistic society. Females can tell a sister from a half-sister by their individual funky fumes. The level of cooperation one female might expect from another depends upon how closely related they are.


Recognizing relatives is an essential aspect of sexual reproduction, the point of which is to engender genetic diversity, to raise the probability that some individuals survive when others in a population may not. When it comes to sex, kin recognition prevents inbreeding, which is a biological taboo of both plants and animals.

Sociality presents a different context. Being conscious of clan cultures camaraderie. Shared heredity give rise to common cause. The basis for cooperative behaviors of every kind come from kin recognition.

It is a tiny leap in the mind of an organism to translate biology into the broader frame of association called attraction. Kinship is only one side of the coin of comity.

The flip side is mating. Promoting genetic diversity requires accepting outsiders and making them family, for at least some duration.

Hence, all sociality has a genetic genesis which translates into innate behaviors and mental constructs. From cooperation to war, biology brackets all social expressions.

 Status Sniff

Many mammals, including dogs, rats, and cats, sniff each other out when they meet. For rodents at least, sniffing intensity signals social status.

Subordinates stifle sniffing in the face of a dominant rodent or risk its wrath. Snuffing sniffing is an appeasement signal. Such sniffing has nothing to do with smell. Instead, the behavior itself signals subordination.


Coinciding interests can sometimes be quite smelly, and costly. Lacking a way to get around, yeast need a ride. To grab a cab, brewer’s yeast produce fruity aromas that attract fruit flies. Alas, the ticket to ride is a sacrifice gambit. Some yeast become lunch. But enough get attached to these nomadic flies and survive to travel to the ripe and rotting fruit that both yeast and fly prefer.