63: The Complexity of Animals

Welcome back to another leaf out of the pages of Notebook from the North. This week we will be looking at the nature/science side of things, reminding ourselves that animals can be a lot more complex than we give them credit for, and that sometimes they are not so different from us as we may believe. It’s a big topic, tumbling into philosophy, psychology, and much more, so this will only be a brief skim of the surface. Also, as I’m keen not to plagiarise, I should note this plog was inspired by an article which is attached at the bottom and an interesting read. Here we’ll explore the topic by looking at pain, tools, culture, and how lockdown has proven the similarity between us and fish. Enjoy!

Animal complexity and intelligence. Okay, this one might have been staged…

Pain and Grief

Without going too deep into the philosophies of it, there clearly are differences between humans and animals. What exactly this is, is harder to define. Free will? Some form of higher thought? Morality? A soul? The ability to make selfless decisions, ones that may even harm us without giving any benefit to ourselves or our offspring (some scientists argue selfless parental or group care in the animal kingdom is done solely to make sure your genetic material and offspring survive)? I don’t know, and we’re not going to answer that here. What we do know is we are different, and as a human society in increasingly urban man-made worlds with decreasing contact with nature, we can sometime forget some of the similarities and overlaps we have with animals. We forget than animals aren’t just cute fluffy things that bumble about out there in the wilderness with little thought.

Some of the early reminders of this was discovering pain. We know we feel pain, and have probably noticed that pets, and farm animals on PETA videos feel pain. They show fear and develop trauma from abusive situations. In many reindeer herding cultures, it is forbidden to kill a reindeer within sight of another reindeer being killed, as they say the reindeer gets afraid and feels stress. This not only is unfair on the animal, but releases hormones into their body before they are killed which changes the taste of the meat, making it worse. That has long been known in indigenous and subsistence cultures, but even modern science is catching up, noting that the meat of animals from factory farms tastes far worse due stress hormones than eat from free ranging animals. However, we often draw the line there.

Obviously things like fish and insects are totally different than kittens and cows! Up until 2005 it was still assumed by science that fish don’t really feel pain. Why would they, they’re not fluffy mammals like us. Well, turns out that things that don’t look like us or that aren’t ‘cute’ can still be complex. A study from 2016 found that salmon in fish farms feel under constant stress because of being in a confined space. This stress causes genetic changes, and changes to their brain and behaviour mirroring the symptoms of depression. The lead researcher Marco Vindas said “I would not go so far as to say they are committing suicide, but physiologically speaking, they are on the edge of what they can tolerate, and since they remain in this environment, they end up dying because of their condition”. Aside from this emotional perception of pain, it is now more documented that fish feel physical pain too. Perhaps for those who have experienced the emotional difficulties of lockdown we can have a little empathy for the salmon. Remember, they don’t even have wifi, or the potential for their lockdown to end.

Salmon farms involve holding a large number of fish in a very small space. This leads to quick spread of disease and high levels of stress among the animals, which has led to some showing depression like symptoms even leading to premature death (Picture: The Maritime Executive)

Using Tools

Feeling pain is the bare basics of it. Onto brighter things, there are many other more complex things which remind us animals aren’t just nature robots. Another argument used for a long time to set us apart is that humans can use tools, from breaking a coconut open with a rock to using a smartphone to buy stocks. Okay, some admitted, the cleverest of monkeys have been seen prodding stuff with sticks, some even learned a few words of sign language after years of teaching, but monkeys are the smartest of animals. Well, science and observation over the last few years has proven this wrong too.

There are actually many clever examples of animals using tools. First you have simple things like birds and coconut octopuses building nests, then you have the whole using-rocks-to-break-open-food method, used by sea otters, tusk fish, and a variety of birds. For more elaborate schemes, Australian dolphins get soft sponges on the tips of their noses when burrowing into the seafloor to search for food, protecting themselves from being scratched by sharp stones or grumpy crustaceans. Even insects make the list, with some species of ants in the western U.S dropping stones into the homes and onto the heads of competing species.

For a more classic example of tool use, chimpanzees have been known to use sticks to get to hard-to-reach food e.g. in termite mounds (Picture: Mark Higgins/Dreamstime.com)


Tools are very practical. They can immediately get you food or decapitate an enemy. However, the complexity of animals often goes beyond the immediate physical and into the social and long term.

Many animals hold important spatial knowledge, for example about migration. This can be the path to take to reach breeding grounds, or in arid environments knowing where watering holes are. This sort of knowledge is still poorly understood by science. Some of it appears to be in-built, with birds having what is basically an internal compass guiding them on long migrations. However, a lot of this seems to be learned information, and animals take the time to teach it to one another. Female narwhals often survive well past the menopause, an odd thing in the animal kingdom. They can no longer produce offspring so can’t add to their pod, a situation which you might think makes them disposable to nature. Recent research has shown that these old females have extensive knowledge about their environment- where to go for food and what areas are unsafe over a very wide area. They remain within the narwhal pod because they act as a guide and slowly pass on this knowledge to younger narwhals, making them indispensable in a guiding role. This same behaviour of passing on knowledge about watering holes or what to do if you’re faced with a rhino, is seen in elephant matriarchs, although they don’t go in to menopause.

Even more social complex, many animals appear to have culture, such as funeral rituals or behaviours of mourning and respect to the dead. Elephants have been seen to revisit and display unusual behaviour, thought by some to be showing signs of respect at the bones of deceased elephants. Giraffes and chimpanzees have been seen to stay near dead family members, licking and even carrying them for days. Some research from the University of Colorado has even suggested magpies hold funerals for their dead, gently pecking, then laying grass next to or onto the deceased magpie before standing silently together around it. You only need to read the story of Grey Friar’s Bobby, a dog devoted to his owner after his passing, to be convinced that animals care even when those they love pass away, proving they can form strong relationships.

Magpie funeral (Picture: @viv_iam/Twitter)

These are a wide variety of examples about the complexity of the animal kingdom. Of course, not all animals use tools or respect their dead, some even eat their family and friends as soon as they take their final breath, and to what extent many species feel emotional pain is still to be understood. As far as I know all feel physical pain, it’s sort of important for survival to know if something is eating you. However, what these examples do remind us is that animals aren’t just fluffy things lumbering around aimlessly. They have feelings, relationships, cultures and communicate with one another. This isn’t just the mammals, it’s the fish and insects too. So when we go out for a walk in nature it’s good to remember that there is definitely something going on behind those beady animal eyes we see.

For more info:

-This is the article inspiring the plog. It is written in Dutch but if you are on chrome you should be able to translate the page by clicking on the upper right-hand side of your internet toolbar. Click Here

-Get your tissues, here’s some tales of dogs devoted to their people even after their passing. Click Here

-If you’re looking for hardcore science, here is the research paper on farmed salmon depression. Click Here

Title Image: Ewa Krzyszczyk

Music: kongano.com

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