It’s a very exciting time here at Londolozi, spring is just around the corner, and summer is following close on its heels. And that, ladies and gentlemen, means the migrants are returning to Londolozi!
One species I am looking forward to seeing return are the White Storks. These birds undergo one of the more intense migrations of all of our returning airborne travellers. The average journey back south covers a whopping 2000km over ONLY 50 days! Starting off from Europe, they soon cross the Straits of Gibraltar and from there they hitch a ride on the heavy thermal wind systems that are rising over the African continent. These systems allow them to fly more efficiently and, for the most part, soar rather than actively flap their wings for the majority of the journey. These flocks, sometimes numbering up to 10 000 individuals, then follow the Nile River south, eventually they settle in various African countries, including right here in beautiful South Africa.
Reading up on this got me thinking about the trigger mechanisms for these kinds of behaviours. The word instinct started coming up and this sent me down a bit of a rabbit-hole…
Now I enjoy concepts that challenge the way we think about things. I enjoy forcing my mind to cogitate in twists and turns; to think about things in ways contrary to my modus operandi. An interesting paper that I recently came across called out a challenge to the definition of instinct that I found interesting.
It starts off start by asking the question, “what even is instinct?” It turns out that this simple question is extremely hard to answer. The many meanings that are routinely ascribed to it include:
- present at birth
- not learned
- developed before it is used
- unchanged once developed
- shared by all members of a species
- adapted during evolution
- served by a distinct module in the brain
- attributable to genes
Or any combination of the above. As a term it is somewhat ambiguous and may possibly even be considered as lazy; a catch-all explanation for those adaptive and complex abilities that do not obviously result from learning or experience.
And therein lies the counterargument; just because a behaviour is not obviously linked to learning or experience, it does not mean that there is some sort of unexplainable pre-programming going on that we’ll never understand and therefore must file it under that umbrella term instinct.
But when one looks deeper, one may see a cascade of short (and possibly very steep) learning curves. An interesting example is the concept of appetite learning; a recently weaned rodent does not make the link between dehydration and water even though water may be present and available i.e. the rodent does not instinctually know that they must drink to ease their dehydration as they have no idea what water is up to this point. But after drinking once and making that link then they develop a water appetite which will obviously serve in their survival going forward.
And here we circle back to what got me (and now you) into this thought experiment; the migratory instinct. Is migration really an instinct or rather is it a learnt behaviour? Does the time come and every bird somehow knows that the time has come for us them to make that long and arduous journey northward.
In actual fact, many birds will rather not partake in the first of the seasonal migrations in their lifetimes and thereafter may only travel part of the way before joining in on the return trip, thus working their way up to full migratory status. Clearly, this is a learnt behaviour. Take it a step further and a sceptic may challenge how they actually find their way along their migratory highway other than by instinct? Here we enter the realm of circadian rhythms, internal clocks, a slow and continuous learning curve that may even begin prenatally, and the presence of magnetite in the brain that helps that animal navigate and that is another kettle of fish.
One can even go so far as to investigate the instinctual response to a mother’s call. Experimenters investigated how a newborn chick may immediately respond to the hen’s call and worked out that there is pre-natal learning in these animals, where while still in the egg the chick is already exposed to those calls and so is born attracted to them. And this same pre-natal learning can be applied across various species, including humans!
The list of examples could go on and I could likely pry more deeply into the topic but that’s not exactly the purpose of this blog. There probably are plenty of examples of the absolutely unexplainable where one would have no choice but to admit that there just is some inbuilt mechanism in the brain of an animal that tells it that this is the way to do something, and we’d have to call that instinct.
Rather, the purpose of this blog is to remind everyone reading it today that we should always challenge our own conventional thinking; to take our existing views and have fun turning them on their head, even if it’s just to see what they look like upside down. Because, by squinting our eyes and tilting our heads just so we can see things in a completely different light and, besides it being good fun, it will help us to see and understand the points of view of those around us. And that can only help in this ever more interconnected world that we find ourselves living in.
Hall WG, Arnold HM, Myers KP. The acquisition of an appetite. Psychol Sci. 2000 Mar;11(2):101-5. doi: 10.1111/1467-9280.00223. PMID: 11273415.