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 Giz Asks, we reached out to number of animal behaviorists, who helped us explore whether or not animals grift each other. As it turns out, the ingeniousness and variety of griftmanship on display in the animal kingdom nearly rivals, and in some cases exceeds, our own.

Gisela Kaplan

Emeritus Professor, Animal Behaviour, University of New England, and the author of Bird Minds. Cognition and Behaviour of Australian Native Species (2015), among many other books

Male domestic chickens will often call their females to a new site by giving a food call. Most of the time the signal is honest, and he delivers on the promise of food. Occasionally, however, as Marcel Gyger and Peter Marler have shown, the male gives a food call and then uses the proximity of the females to copulate with them.

In cooperative avian species, helpers at the nest may sometimes pretend to feed offspring, but the consume the morsel of food themselves. This has been shown to occur in young white-winged choughs assigned to help feed offspring. As documented by C.R.J. Boland, they have been shown to feign the feeding motion but then swallow the morsel themselves.

Michelle Rafacz

Professor, Biology, Columbia College Chicago, whose research focuses on the endocrinological basis of the evolution of animal behaviour

When it comes to finding and securing food, some species deceive their competitors by ‘crying wolf.’ An African bird called the fork-tailed drongo takes advantage of others by mimicking the alarm calls of up to 45 different species that scare other animals away from food. In Argentina, some tufted capuchin monkeys use deceptive warning calls to ensure a meal.

Typically, these are lower-ranking animals who only have access to leftovers. They falsely warn of a predator to keep other monkeys away from food. Bat species have gotten creative, too: some use competitive signal jamming to steal each other’s food. One bat sends out a signal to confuse another bat as both of them approach an insect target. This effectively interferes with the hunting ability of one bat, leaving the prey for the other bat to find.

But some of the most interesting forms of animal deception revolve around sex. Males of some species take advantage of each other by imitating females—we call them “sneaker males.” Due to their smaller size, these female mimics can swim right by a big male who’s courting a female undetected. The female impersonator then slips between the two and mates with the actual female. We see this tactic in some species of fish and lizards, and also in the sponge louse.

Male cuttlefish take female mimicry and sneaking one step further by actually changing the colour and texture of their skin to alter their appearance. They’ve even been known to change one side of their body to look like a female to deter a bigger male while using their other side to attract a female!

The power of sex has also driven the males of some species to use scare tactics to trick females into mating. Water striders make vibrations on the water’s surface to attract and impress females, but these same vibrations can also attract underwater predators.

If a female refuses to mate with a male (he gets to be on top and is safer there), he will continue making vibrations to scare the female into mating with him. He will only stop making the vibrations once mating is ensured. We also see this kind of deception in the topi antelope, where competition for females is fierce. Females are only sexually receptive one day out of the entire year. If a female doesn’t pay any attention to a male, he gets in front of her, stares off into the distance, and starts snorting at a non-existent predator. This false alarm causes the female to stick around a bit longer giving the male more time to impress her and keep her away from other males.

It may seem a bit unfair, but animal trickery certainly has its advantages. Just like any other trait, deceptive behaviour has evolved because more individuals who cheat survive, reproduce, and pass their genes on to the next generation. There will always be those who play fair and those who don’t follow the rules. But, as long as they’re kept in check by each other (and natural selection), each strategy will be successful.

Susan Lewis

Professor, Biology and Animal Behaviour, Carroll University

Animals that give alarm signals to warn other members of their social group have been known to use these same alarm signals to to scare their group-mates away from a tasty food source. For example, in the Amazon rainforest two species of birds will typically act as sentinels in mixed-species flocks to warn other birds of bird-eating hawks. Sometimes, they will give an alarm call when no hawk is present, and this typically results in them getting access to large arthropods that the other birds would have eaten.

Similarly, predatory animals will sometimes mimic a signal from their intended prey to lure them closer. A classic example of this is the predatory fireflies whose females will sometimes mimic the flash pattern of another species of firefly. Males see the flashing signal, fly in hoping for a chance to mate, and instead find themselves in the jaws of what are sometimes called firefly “femme fatales”. Similarly, the margay cat of Brazil has been observed to mimic the call of a baby pied tamarin monkey. When other tamarins go to investigate what appears to be a lost infant, the margay pounce.

Steven M. Green

Professor Emeritus, Biology, University of Miami, whose research focuses on behaviour and behavioural ecology

There is grift between individuals of different species, particularly those with a predatory-prey relationship, examples of which are interesting but not rare. Some predator fireflies, for instance, will mimic the flashing sequence of another species—a mating signal, attracting mates which the predator then devours.

Grift between individuals of the same species that may or may not be social, but do not live in a true social colony, have occasioned heated disagreements. One camp offers logical arguments that sending out “honest” signals always maximizes reward for the signalling individual. The other camp says that “lying”—as long as it’s not all the time, and therefore constantly distrusted or discounted—can benefit the signalling individual at the expense of others, and is therefore a viable strategy.

Neither position is correct in the absolute sense, but there are good example of both kinds, and it may vary by kind of signal (as in fights vs mate solicitation vs food-found) or by species and the degree to which a local group is relatively genetically related or essentially unrelated.

Molly Morris

Professor, Biological Sciences, Ohio University, whose lab focuses on the evolution of mating behaviours, animal communication alternative reproductive tactics and adaptive plasticity

Humans are definitely not the only species that grift each other. Dishonesty is abundant across organisms of all sizes and relationships.

The most obvious example is where predators trick their prey to be more vulnerable. There is a snake that has a tail that mimics a spider; 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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