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The Tale of the Coyote and the Badger

Updated: Apr 4, 2020

I was recently sent a very short video clip, which had a very big meaning to me. You've probably seen it, as it went viral.

There are a number of schools of thought about the roles of humans and animals, as well as the differences between humans and animals. Personally, I have been accused of anthropomorphism, or the extension of human qualities to animals, which the animals could not possibly possess, in the opinion of many people. My husband likes to pick on me about this regarding our pets, although I think he does it largely to get under my skin. It usually happens when I talk about how jealous the cats are of each other when I pet one and not the other, or how fiercely protective our dog is of me. Most people would not object to the thought of jealous house cats or overly protective dogs (especially shepherd breeds like ours), although admittedly jealously and protectiveness are typically thought of as human emotions.

As scientists, we are supposed to be objective. In the scientific world, animals react to stimuli, compete for resources, reproduce and raise young to enhance their fitness through propagation of their genes, and it all should fit into a neat mathematical model; whatever does not neatly fit into our models is conveniently termed “error.” It would indeed be career suicide to attempt to discuss individual “emotions” of any animal species, other than perhaps that of primates, in a scientific paper.

In a ground-breaking paper, Minta et al. (1992) described the cooperative hunting between two separate species: coyotes and American badgers. Apparently, where ground squirrels are the primary prey for both species, badgers dig into burrows, while coyotes chase down squirrels exiting from other burrows. It has been shown that hunting success increases for both predators by up to 30% when they form this alliance. Nonetheless, Minta et al. stated, “The badger-coyote association probably is neither cooperation nor reciprocal altruism. Cooperation traditionally is restricted to the intraspecific (within a species) level because each participant potentially shares genes.” But there does indeed seem to be a social bond, regardless of the lack of shared genes, because the same badger-coyote pair have been seen working together repeatedly. Badgers and coyotes not only hunt together, but they’ve been observed sniffing nose to nose in greeting and resting and even sleeping next to one another. Researchers have now observed coyotes mock-chasing or otherwise trying to involve badgers in play. So, I’ll leave it for each of you to ponder. I think the question of emotions in non-human animals, where the "emotions" are not based on the propagation of shared genes, is something people have strong and often opposing opinions about. A behavioral scientist speaking about the video above recently stated, “I wouldn’t scientifically want to use the term friends, but these are two wild animals that clearly understand their partnership.” To that, as a scientist, I say, “huh?”

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