The Nature versus Nurture debate has been a massive topic of discussion in psychological circles for centuries. Is behaviour and disposition ingrained in a species’ genetics or is it merely a product of multiple positive and negative experiences throughout its life? Since we cannot settle on this for our own species, it seems futile to attempt to relate it to other species, but when we see animals acting in an unusual or surprising manner, it is interesting to wonder what caused this atypical response. Bushwise investigate…
We know that many animals learn from their parents in the wild – look at the comical efforts of a baby elephant trying to master the use of its trunk! This can take 2 years of practice, and many of the skills learned are gleaned from watching its mother, or other members of the herd. This is why certain populations are better able to exploit particular resources due to specific knowledge and experience.
Various studies have shown that animals who are nurtured in a stable setting are more intelligent, or at least, more adaptable. Look at chimps, dolphins, spotted hyenas and elephants as some obvious examples. It is surely no coincidence that a stable social system is present in them all? But a ‘herd’ structure is not necessary to imply a solid upbringing. Human psychology again suggests that a stable home life is more likely to lead to a better approach to skills such as ethics and potential success in later life.
Perhaps one of the most documented animals to elicit this ability to learn from their peers is the jackal. Jackals are monogamous and mate for life. This means that local knowledge of the area and of potential problems can be passed down from parents that have had a lifetime of exposure. Not only that, but previous litters tend to also help rear new pups and thus new arrivals are mentored by their relatives until it is time for them to venture out into the big bad world alone.
Jackals have a reputation of being cunning, and whilst many of these traditional attributes can be traced back to cultural stories, the jackal has proved itself worthy of this title. There are countless reports of jackals learning to avoid poisoned meat left out by farmers trying to limit the loss of livestock to these opportunistic canines. This is not an innate skill, but is rather one that is learned through the experience of others. Mothers have been recorded taking pups to poisoned meat, allowing them to smell and investigate but not to ingest anything. This is one of the purest examples of evidence for animals passing on knowledge that we have!
Parents cannot always be present however and often siblings will explore their surroundings alone. Curiosity is the key to learning and when at such an age, anything out of the ordinary is worth investigating! During a recent Bushwise practical drive, the students got to witness some of this learning behaviour first hand. An old shell from a giant African land snail kept this group of young jackal pups busy for well over half an hour! Whilst an old shell holds no danger, it is still a great opportunity for the young jackals to play, develop muscles and establish dominance hierarchies amongst the group, all of which are vital for a successful life once independence finds them.
Whether or not this specific encounter will aid them in later life remains to be seen, but the more an animal can explore its surroundings, and gain information about it, the better. And if this learning experience can be shared with siblings, or even better, be experienced under parental supervision, the more likely it is that animal will be successful in later life.
Perhaps then, for jackals, there is a genetic code somewhere deep within their DNA that allows them to make better decisions, and perhaps this has been borne of generations of experience that has become encoded within their cellular make up. But it is quite clear that the efforts of an experienced and stable family group can have a huge effect on their ability to prosper as a species. Such is their incredible habit of avoiding (or outsmarting) human efforts at controlling them, in some areas there are even what are labelled as ‘Super Jackals’! Whether it is due to nature or nurture is ultimately irrelevant. It is one of life’s unexplainable, simple pleasures to watch young animals of any species explore and learn from their surroundings, and this is something you can experience with Bushwise,
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