The Web of Life – Emotions


Lower animals are excited by the same emotions as ourselves. Animals manifestly enjoy excitement and suffer from ennui, and many exhibit curiosity. With the lower animals we see the same principle of pleasure derived from contact in association with love. ~ Charles Darwin (The idea that there are ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ animals typifies the inanity of Darwin and his followers.)

Emotion is a loaded word, colloquially confused between feeling, which is reception of stimuli that have an emotive edge, the processed mental state properly called emotion, and behavioral re/action. Emotion is intended herein as between the sandwich of sensation and behavior: an affective aspect of consciousness, letting slide for now that emotions often root below the level of conscious awareness, or are transposed by conscious thought.

Emotion is a psychophysiological phenomenon. Emotions are a subconscious product of the mind which stimulate the system.

Many scientists appear to be uncomfortable about using the term emotion when referring to animals, for fear that they automatically imply anthropomorphic assumptions of human-like subjective experience. ~ English zoologists Elizabeth Paul, Emma Harding, & Michael Mendl

The concern over anthropomorphic projection is stupendously silly, as humans are obviously animals, and it is equally obvious that other animals have emotions. There is no reason whatsoever to think that human emotions are any different than those of other animals. Consistency in behavioral expressions of affection and annoyance, among other emotive states, indicates that animal emotions are selfsame, human or otherwise.

So-called primal emotions are generally considered entirely instinctual, arising early in animal evolution. In aiding self-preservation, fear is the most primal emotion. Rodents that catch a whiff of a predator immediately become fearful. This is typical of many animals.

American physiologist Walter Cannon coined the term fight-or-flight response in 1914: reflexive reaction to a perceived threat. The fight portion is behavior tied to the emotion of anger. Flight is, of course, the aftermath of fear.

Flight-or-fight is reflexive. Prolonged fear of predation wears, even on insects.

Dragonfly larvae sense when fish which prey upon them are nearby. While the dragonfly eggs are normally placed in relative safety, poor placement, with life in constant danger, takes a toll. The stress induced by fear alone may kill them.

In gregarious species, social interactions maintain group cohesion and the associated adaptive values of group living. ~ French ecological zoologist Pierre Broly & Belgian ecological zoologist Jean-Louis Deneubourg

Emotions often have a social context. Animals that live together not only rely upon each for survival; they often share emotional states.

 Pill Bugs

Woodlice are a small isopod crustacean. Terrestrial woodlice are detrivores, helping recycle vegetative nutrients back into the soil. Some – pill bugs – can roll up into a near-perfect sphere as a defense.

Woodlice are gregarious: happily living together. Their emotional states affect one another. A sense of serenity can spread among woodlice, calming a whole community and promoting social cohesion. The same effect has been seen in human groups that have a significant proportion of meditators within. It is not known whether pill bugs meditate but it is possible.


In contrast to primal emotions, secondary emotions are not autonomic. Instead, they are the product of extended mentation.

Regret is an exemplary secondary emotion. Numerous mammals are known to suffer regret. Regret acts as incentive to learning, to improve in similar situations in the future.

The poles of emotion are between pleasure and pain: positive and negative, when viewed from the motivations of attraction (like) or repulsion (dislike). Fear, anger, and sadness simmer under the cloud of suffering, while infatuation, in its many nuanced varieties, invoke pleasurable emotions.

The relative importance of different senses varies considerably among animals, but their import is the same.

Senses are not an end unto themselves. Instead, they serve as a mosaic of input to create mental maps of the immediate environment. It is the adjunct to those mental maps, constructed with the aid of instinct and memory, that influence and create complex emotions.

A diverse range of emotions serve essential biological functions. Hence, all animals must have them, irrespective of physiology. Emotions serve as behavioral fuel: cause for action and reaction. Emotions of every quality are the spark to memory; hence, to learning.

Beyond behavior, emotions are a register of the instant state of being, a seeming sine qua non measure of the quality of existence. The performance of every animal behavior, down to the biological level of homeostasis, has an emotional component. Happy animals do well. Sad ones do not.

Young animals, human or otherwise, show such similar behavior when they are well fed and secure: frisking, gamboling, pirouetting, bouncing somersaulting. They are full of joie de vivre – they are happy.

I have watched chimpanzee children grieve after the death of their mothers: hunched posture, rocking, dull staring eyes, lack of interest in events around them. If human children can suffer from grief, so too can chimpanzee children. Sometimes, in this state of grieving, chimpanzee orphans die. ~ English primatologist Jane Goodall

The coherence behind Nature favors sensory pleasures as rewards for successful behaviors, incentives to stay alive, and to engender reproduction. Evolution has rendered the necessary as promising satisfaction.

With the carrot comes the stick, which can be an even more powerful driver. Fear, and the prospect of pain, provokes animals to action like nothing else.

Negative emotions are more commonly considered shared with other animals, as they are thought more primitive, while more life-affirming emotions are often thought somehow special. This asymmetric assumption is unwarranted.

Whatever differences there are between species in emotional complexes and worldviews owe solely to evolutionary adaptation. As emotions serve as internal guides and checks for behavioral dynamics, a rich variety of emotions is both necessary and inevitable.

Even the emotions that seem the most cognitively sophisticated – such as empathy – are felt in a selfsame manner in all animals. Cooperative sociality requires a certain set of emotions to compel appropriate behaviors. For instance, love – the emotion the provokes kindness – is a common facet of social animal behavior, in peer bonding, mating, and parental care.

From insects to primates, individuals have different dispositions and temperaments which indicate personality. Just as they have personalities, other life besides animals possess emotions.

Evolution naturally favors individuality, to engender a spectrum of behaviors that benefit population survival. As emotions motivate behaviors, their existence may be considered essential.

Individuals in the disparate domains of life are known to react differently and exhibit distinct behaviors when faced with similar circumstances. There is every reason to think that behavioral diversity and the drivers behind it, including emotion, extend beyond the animal kingdom.

Emotional Chemistry

All known biofilms live on land; early pioneers that predated plants and animals by hundreds of millions, if not billions, of years. The chemical releases that attract a congregation are compelling.

Biologically, emotions are expressed as chemical stimulations and states. Though emochemicals exhibit consistencies through evolutionary descent, and evolutionary benefits align, the meaning of specific compounds vary among species.


Though birds have quite different brain systems than mammals, dopamine is the avian and mammalian brain system biochemical for reward, as well as other emotions involving mood, motivation, and sociability. In contrast, dopamine in insects acts as a punishment signal: a stimulant for forming aversive memories.

The biochemical behind the reward system in insects and mollusks is octopamine, an arthropod homolog of norepinephrine, which in humans is a stress hormone. Dopamine and octopamine are opposing complements, working in opposite ways for insects than for birds and mammals.

Octopamine works in humans with vision regulation, as is also does in fish. Octopamine is suspected to play other roles in other phyla.


The browning of fresh fruit and vegetables when bruised is spurred by enzymes employing polyphenol oxidase (PPO). A PPO substrate is dopamine. Oxidation of PPOs forms quinones and the visible brown pigments known as melanins, which retard the growth of bacteria and fungi on damaged produce. (Not incidentally, fungi also produce PPOs.)

Do vegetables and the seeds of fruits feel when they have been bruised? Their biochemistry suggests they do.

Comfort Behaviors

Innumerable animal species indulge in self-comforting behaviors. These activities are all attendant to body care in some way, but also have emotional effect.

Insects assiduously clean themselves. Birds preen. Mammals have grooming routines. Practicing hygiene, either solely or socially, is comforting to all involved.

Blackbirds sunbathe in the late summer Sun. Many other animals soak up the Sun for warmth and comfort.

Gulls on the tideline often stretch a wing and a leg on the same side of the body while precariously balanced on the other leg. Stretching and yawning have health benefits as well as simply feeling good.

All kinds of animals bathe, either in water, sand, or dust. Elephants take mud baths when they can and linger there after the health benefits have been achieved. Many mammals clean their paws long after the attendant paws will get no cleaner.

Over 250 bird species ant their wings: dab ant or other insect juices on their wings or body. Ants secret formic acid, which can act as a bactericide, fungicide, insecticide, and miticide. Some, such as antbirds and flickers, eat their victims after anting: a scrub and a snack in one.

Birds ant themselves beyond hygienic need, finding the application comforting. Animals commonly luxuriate in cleaning, as we do in the bath or shower.

Cattle continually swish their tails to keep flies on the move. But they often swish when no flies are bothering.

Domestic dogs turn in a circle before lying down: an ancient behavior for flattening grass and checking the location but carried on as a comforting come-on to further relaxation.


For too long scientists have denied the existence of positive sensory experience in other species because we cannot know for certain what another being feels. In the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, it is more reasonable to assume that other creatures, who share so much in common with us through our shared evolutionary origins, do, in fact, experience pleasure. What we can observe in animals, combined with our capacity to empathize from our own experience, leaves little doubt that the animal kingdom is a rich repository of pleasure. ~ English ethologist Jonathan Balcombe

Social animals express a sense of happiness that is recognizable to humans, and for the same reasons. Good food and companionship, especially family, can be sheer delight. Anyone who has ever had a pet dog or cat knows about the moods of other animals and their emotional temperaments.

Mountain goats and chamois dance with joy. One starts rearing, leaping, tossing its horns to and fro, whirling about mid-air. Others join in. Goats dance most often when food is plentiful, during the summer, but a dance in the snow with the Sun shining down is reason enough to jump for joy.

Sentient animals have the capacity to experience pleasure and are motivated to seek it. You only have to watch how cows and lambs both seek and enjoy pleasure when they lie with their heads raised to the Sun on a perfect English summer’s day. Just like humans. ~ English dramatist John Webster

Beavers somersault over each other in the water with joy at the coming of spring. Elephants celebrate with ear flapping and rumbling greetings. Dolphins chuckle. Dogs laugh. Rats respond to tickling and seek it out. Chimps show a variety of faces, sounds, and gestures of joy, including hugging, holding hands, and kissing, from the pleasure of just being together, or of happy events, such as the birth of a child.

Reunions are a special pleasure. African wild dogs sometimes greet each other with cacophonies of yips and squeals, vigorous tail-wagging, and bounding leaps. Coyotes and wolves show similar signs of joy at being reunited.

Their faces are less expressive, but birds, most notably corvids and parrots, have been observed gesturing in ways that indicate pleasure in another’s company.

Joy is essential to a healthy existence. People die of despair, as do other animals. The feeling of happiness is not thoughtful, but primal. The prospect of its return is a base motivator to live, to endure. There is no reason to think that such a primal instinct should be absent in any animal, including (especially) insects, many of which live lives of diligent toil.

There is nothing that could make any animal that cares for its young do so except emotional attachment. Parenting is not a reflex. It instead engages an emotional complex that motivates considerable self-sacrifice. Nothing could make such sacrifice repeatedly worthwhile except a sense of satisfaction in its accomplishment.


Even insects play together, as has been described by that excellent observer, P. Huber, who saw ants chasing and pretending to bite each other, like so many puppies. ~ Charles Darwin

Play presents a special problem for biologists. Play naturally lacks gravitas, as not being perceived as an important factor in ontogeny or behavior; and so its study has been slighted.

Play is also not an easy research project. Play has an inherent element of spontaneity. Setting up for play in anything resembling a laboratory setting is only possible for animals that can relax in such an environ, as tension and play are antithetic.

The alternative is untold hours in the wild on a most difficult study. Further, the observation of play is also highly interpretive, which highlights behaviorist reluctance to tackle topic areas deficient in objective metrics.

There is irony in relative scientific neglect of studying animals following Plato’s directive: “life must be lived as play,” particularly as playfulness is considered an epitome of human interaction at any age. Throughout their lives even honeybee workers play.

Play has been considered a legacy behavior: a vestige of evolution, a venting of primitive instincts. Evidence indicates that play evolved early on. That play is ubiquitous among animals indicates that it is meaningful in of itself to its participants, as well as serving a purpose.

Play is the beginning of knowledge. ~ American ethnographer George Dorsey

The nature of play reflects evolutionary impulses. Developmentally, play hones the mind and body.

Play can be essential practice for later acts that bear no resemblance to play. Practice makes perfect, and play is often practice, however unintentionally so in the moment.

In the course of playing earlier in their lives, individuals discover properties of their environment that may prove crucial when they are later faced with a new challenge. ~ English biologist Patrick Bateson & American biologist Paul Martin

At its core and wellspring, play is an expression of the sheer joy of being alive.

Tradition categorizes play into 3 different contextual slots: locomotor, object, and social. Such categorization may seem helpful from a research standpoint, but is of limited use, as much animal play spontaneously slides among the slots.

Locomotor play involves solitary maneuvers of seeming non-functional import: the fun of fooling around by oneself. Locomotor play often appears to an observer as strange behavior, highlighting the perception of play is as much a point of view as anything.

Bears are playful through their lives. They like to slide on snow banks like otters.

A grizzly bear was spotted floating on a mountain lake on a hot summer day. It ducked its muzzle under water to blow bubbles, and then reached out and popped them with its long claws.

The gold-leaf onion domes of the Kremlin were once incidentally vandalized by crows, who found the domes enormous fun to slide down, using their claws for maneuvering. They were eventually driven off by recorded crow distress calls and regular patrols of trained falcons.

Object play is invariably contemplated as covary to tool use: an exploration of utility. Whether object play promotes manipulative tool-use skill, or is the outcome of skill acquisition, is somewhat irrelevant to the central observation that object play is indicative of intelligent curiosity.

Play is inherent in the lives of most animals and is particularly notable in birds and mammals. Insects, fish, octopuses, lizards, and turtles are also known to play.

Crocodiles are very playful: having fun with debris in the water, sliding down slopes, surfing waves. A male was seen giving a piggyback ride to his lifelong female partner.

Crocodiles also play with other species. A juvenile alligator was spotted playing with a river otter. A man who rescued a crocodile that had been shot in the head gained a close friend for 20 years, until the crocodile died.

The croc would swim with his human friend, try to startle him by suddenly pretending to attack him or by sneaking up on him from behind, and accept being caressed, hugged, rotated in the water, and kissed on the snout. ~ Russian zoologist Vladimir Dinets

Mammals typically play 1 to 10% of the time. Dolphins of any age are at the high end of the play scale, far above human adults.

 An Imprisoned Turtle

Play is an integral part of life and may make a life worth living. ~ Gordon Burghardt

Pigface was a male Nile soft-shelled turtle, imprisoned at the National Zoo in Washington, DC for over 40 years. The Nile turtle is large: up to 95 cm, 90 kg; an aquatic native to much of Africa, except the southern and northwestern waterways; hence the name (Nile).

In the 1980s, zookeepers observed Pigface mutilating himself: raking the flesh of his neck with his foreclaws and biting his forelimbs. The wounds would become infected.

Such stereotypical, self-injurious behavior is long known in bird and mammal zoo captives, including feather plucking and hair pulling. The boredom and alienation of incarceration is fearsome. Animals do what they can to hasten leaving their miserable prison.

Keepers started adding toys to Pigface’s tank: floating hoops, a basketball, sticks, spritzing hoses. Pigface would inspect them before nosing, biting, grasping, chewing, shaking (with his mouth), pushing, pulling, and holding (with his forearms). Not much to do with a bobbing basketball, which only got bit, nosed, and pushed.

The hoops were a favorite. Pigface would dart through a hoop like a trained seal, among other maneuvers: everything a turtle could imaginatively do with a hoop in the water.

The hose was a reminder to Pigface of his native habitat. Pigface’s enclosure had no running water, unlike the currents running in the rivers back in Africa.

When Pigface’s tank was being refilled from a hose at the bottom of the tank, Pigface would orient the nozzle so that the water flowed over his head. Pigface tweaked the hose until its flow was just right, then he would luxuriate, motionless.

This was a striking contrast to his typical bustle. When the water was turned off, Pigface became restless and moved away.

Pigface hardly hurt himself when toys were available: spending most of his active time playing.


Due to its contagious nature, social play often involves more than 2 animals. ~ Italian primatologist Elisabetta Palagi

Bathing is exemplary bird play. Many birds play in the water, especially fledglings. Adults are often much quicker to bathe and then preen themselves clean. Birds in colder climes will often bathe/play in the snow.

Befitting their brain wattage, corvids have the most complex and varied forms of play observed to date in birds. Ravens and crows are notorious for their mischievousness: practical jokers via cerebral play.

Corvid play runs the gamut beyond mind games: splashy baths; vocal monologues and dialogues; wing flapping (popular with young ones still in the nest); aeronautic acrobatics; hanging around upside down, or a dangle at an angle; sliding down inclines; fooling around with twigs and nuts and such, both as solitaire and social fun, including playing catch; and other, more elaborate physical games, such as playing “king of the mountain” on a carcass.

Play fighting is common in many animals, but is notably lacking in ravens, which may be emblematic of corvids. Young ravens display aggressive interactions in various forms (vocalizations, feints, lunging, talon grappling) at different levels of intensity, but with no indication that the behavior is playful. Corvids possess a degree of gamesmanship in social play with a cerebral edge. Play fighting may simply be too lowbrow to an animal as cunning as a corvid.

By contrast, young felids and canids signal intent to play prior to rough-and-tumble that may otherwise be more seriously construed, and which can lead to friction in those species that do play-fight.

Behaviors that look like play may be showing off, and signal social status. Fitness and social status are central considerations of courtship and pairing for every social species where enduring bonding is a norm.

Many corvid species mate for life, though extracurricular copulations are not uncommon. There is therefore mate-choice competition in a corvid community. Corvid play at least sometimes serves as a mating display.

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Non-avian reptiles are highly precocial; a necessity when parental care is lacking or is only for protection. Little reptiles look and act like miniature adults.

Play is largely an unaffordable luxury when tiny and on one’s own right out of the egg. Survival is enhanced by silence and staying inconspicuous. Further, many reptile species are metabolically constrained: limited aerobic capacity, and relatively long recovery after anaerobic exertion.

By comparison, mammals are generally altricial. Play has been observed in nearly every mammal species carefully observed, though the time spent in play varies considerably by species. Ungulates, carnivores, and primates are particularly conspicuous in displays of play.

Play is adaptive to lifestyle. Rams butt each other in play. Young European red deer indulge in a variety of games, including racing, tag, and playful tussles. Primates play chase and tussle. Young carnivores mock stalk, leap, and practice their predatory behaviors: play foretelling a serious future.

Animal play typically begins early in life, often as an aspect of socialization. In healthy creatures, though play time diminishes with maturity, its appreciation, and occasional participation, is never extinguished. Older animals join their offspring in play. Parental instruction naturally takes the form of play.

Still, it is the young ones that love to play, and have the excess energy to burn. Canine puppies play with one another more than twice as often as adult dogs, and 11 times that of old dogs.

Something resembling play during courtship, and mating, is common in numerous animals, including humans, who value sense of humor, which is a form of play.

Play is ubiquitous. Every social animal has a natural inclination to play.

Cohabitating species of no mutual threat have the prospect of play as a universal language. Even species with potential conflicts of interest sometimes find common ground and emotional satisfaction in play.

At Churchill Manitoba, hungry polar bears at the end of their winter fast have been seen to approach husky dogs. On one occasion, instead of attacking and eating the dogs, a dog and a bear were seen to exchange gestures of mutual acceptance and they play together in the snow. At one stage the bear covered the dog with its massive body; later the dog and bear embraced each other. When the bear lay in the snow to cool off from the exertion, the dog stayed attentively close. ~ Brian Ford

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We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing. ~ George Bernard Shaw