Do Animals Grift Each Other?

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Ours is a dog-eat-dog world—but is the same true for dogs? I’ve seen dogs tussle over discarded bits of hamburger meat, but I’ve never seen one try to enlist another in a shady multi-level marketing scheme, nor have I seen one dog try to distract another dog while a third dog steals the second dog’s rat carcass or whatever. Excepting the snake who allegedly screwed over Eve, animals in general would seem to lack the complex powers of thought which allow us humans to more or less constantly scam, defraud and double-cross one another.

But the operative word here is seem—because surely, if we looked a little closer, we’d find out that it wasn’t actually that simple. To that end, for this week’s even the lowly single cell of a bacteria can coat themselves in a sugar harvested from their host (you), tricking your immune system into treating it as one of your own cells and not killing it.

However, deception does not only occur in the cases of predators and prey, or parasites and hosts; there is deception within species, between males fighting over females, between males and females, and even between offspring and their mothers. The key to understanding deception is to note that it can evolve any time two individuals do not have the exact same goals.

In a fight between males over a territory or a potential mate, males will often bluff that they are larger or stronger than they actually are, hoping their opponent will not test them and back down without a fight.

Even mothers and their offspring do not always have the exact same goals, and so the interactions can include deception. Mother birds that come back to the nest to feed their chicks will try to give food to the individual that is the hungriest by how loud they call, ensuring that all of the offspring survive. However, the chicks that have evolved to deceive the mother will call louder regardless of their need.

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