I wouldn’t have imagined that an impala displaying for the benefit of a pursuing wild dog pack would be the equivalent of a man making a wedding ring selection, but when you dig a little deeper, they are essentially one and the same thing.
Wild Dogs are as close to certain death to impalas as any predator can be. The herd isn’t going to stick around sounding the alarm when a pack hoves into view; instead they’ll make tracks towards the horizon. Fast.
What one might see though, is not always a flat-out panic… well, not entirely. A large number of the antelope will probably be displaying a very interesting gait known as stotting. They adopt a rocking-horse-like motion, bouncing high with their back legs thrown out behind them in a way that almost looks like they should snap their spines.
It is a very eye-catching gait, so the question one needs to ask is why would something actively draw attention to itself, when being singled out might mean the fatal attention of a predator?
The Handicap Principle is a hypothesis proposed by Isreali biologist Amotz Zahavi, and explains how reliable signalling in wild animals evolved for situations in which there would be a definite motivation to bluff.
Essentially the principle suggests that whatever signal the animal is giving off must be costly for the signaller, else it would not do it. That sounds contrary, I know, but bear with me.
Looking at the impala example above, the theory goes that the stotting display of the fleeing antelope suggests fitness, and is a message to the pursuers that it would not be worth their while chasing an individual engaged in the display, as it has so much energy and speed that it can afford to not run away as fast as it can because it doesn’t need to; the predator won’t catch it anyway. The impalas not stotting would more likely be the ones without the energy to perform that way, and therefore are the ones that the dogs should chase.
The basis of it revolves around the deliberate squandering of a resource – be it food, energy, speed etc. – which a signaller of inferior quality could not afford to do.
This is where the comparison with wedding ring selection comes in. One means of selecting a ring says that you should look to spend two to three months salary on it. Taking a quarter of your annual resources and investing them into a declaration of love and commitment is clearly not something to be done lightly, so a financial gesture of this magnitude was therefore deemed to be a true reflection of the giver’s intentions. Someone not intending to honour their commitment would not want to squander valuable resources.
I’m not trying to say that the purchase of a wedding ring is merely the deliberate squandering of money, but the psychology behind it on a purely animalistic level I find fascinating, and when looking at Zahavi’s Handicap Principle, it makes perfect sense.
The bottom line is that these gestures have to be honest. The cost of faking them would be too great, and in the animal kingdom, probably fatal more often than not.
Zahavian displays like this are to be found in many places in nature, and some right here at Londolozi:
Both long-tailed paradise whydahs and pin-tailed whydah males both grow disproportionately long tail feathers at the onset of the mating season. A male who can survive long enough despite the handicap of a massive tail that essentially destroys his aerodynamic ability must be of a certain minimum fitness, and is therefore deemed to be acceptable as a mate.
Arabian babblers – a type of very social bird – are known to display highly altruistic behaviour around helping at the nest site. This can happen between unrelated individuals (and therefore can’t be put down to genetic selection, like it can in the case of male lion coalitions defending territories with their brothers). The theory is that the cost to individual babblers for their contributions are outweighed by the improved attractiveness it gives off to potential mates. While we don’t find the Arabian Babbler at Londolozi, their cousin the Arrow-marked babbler is very common here, and as not too much is known about which individuals in Arrow-Marked Babbler groups are the most reproductive, due to their cooperative habits, it is not too far-fetched to presume that they operate in a similar way to their Middle-eastern cousins.
Peacocks displaying their dazzling plumage, the purchasing of Ferraris, larks in full song when being pursued by falcons… it’s all part of nature’s great web of survival. The costly displays are given by those who can afford them, and even though many of the principles in nature aren’t as obvious in human society, as they’ve been subsumed into what classifies as “culture”, when we examine them more closely they are every bit as understandable, and comparable to an impala drawing deliberate attention to itself in the face of mortal danger.
Best of all, knowing that we still operate on many of the same principles as other seemingly less-advanced species can still serve to keep our egos in check before we distance ourselves too much in the classification of humans vs. the rest…