Almost every child, when asked if they could wish for any three things around the holidays, usually includes a perfunctory “I wish for peace on Earth.” Yes, maybe this is thrown in as the final wish in case Santa is listening, or maybe it comes from a heartfelt place of hope that we can all just get along.
Within the animal world, behavior runs the gamut across different species. Some animals, like the polar bear, have been known to eat their own young. Others, such as elephants, nurse for up to six years, then stay with their mothers for 16 years. Some animals live in groups with intricate social networks, such as wolves, dolphins and lions. Others live solitary lives within set territories, such as mountain lions, sloths and badgers.
Symbiotic relationships are a special type of interaction between species. These relationships are essential to many organisms and ecosystems, and they provide a balance that can only be achieved by working together. When both species benefit from the relationship, it is called mutualism.
For example, in the mutualistic relationship between oxpeckers and zebras, the bird lives on the zebra, where it feeds on the bugs and parasites on the skin. The oxpecker benefits by getting food, and the zebra gains from pest removal. In case of danger, the oxpeckers fly upward while screaming a warning heeded by the zebra.
It’s one thing to “get along” with another species because of the benefit it provides, and quite another to act in a truly altruistic way with no goal of recompense. Scientists argue whether examples of animal altruism are pure or have a hidden benefit. But the many examples of dolphins saving other species, animals raising the young of another species or monkeys refusing food when it causes pain to another all give one pause. When we look at the human species, are we willing to be altruistic to save other animals species? The verdict is still out, and history shows that the answer, unfortunately, is influenced by the short-term cost.
However, of all animals in the animal kingdom, humans are the ones most likely to jump out of their biological patterns and choose their actions, rather than be a slave to them. In fact, as we’ve been hearing a lot lately, democracy itself is one great experiment on getting along – showing empathy and equality for those different from ourselves.
If true peace on Earth is out of reach, perhaps mutualism with occasional bursts of altruism will have to do.
Sally Shuffield, Executive Director