Spreading Democracy, Monkey Style

This week brought a rich assortment of “isn’t that amazing” animal stories, including the mother gorilla in a German zoo who continued to carry her dead infant. Mourning (to be anthropomorphic about it) is hardly unknown in the non-human part of the animal kingdom. In 2006 a panda named Ya Ya, living in a zoo in China, seemed inconsolable after accidentally crushing her newborn to death. She wailed and kept searching for the tiny body after a keeper took it away, and when the keeper checked on her she looked at him with teary eyes.

Animals also display compassion, or what looks an awful lot like it. In 2006 scientists reported that after an elephant matriarch—“Eleanor”—living in the Samburu Reserve in northern Kenya collapsed one day, the matriarch of a different family walked over and nudged her to her feet using her tusks. When Eleanor was too shaky to stand, Grace kept at her, pushing Eleanor to walk. When Eleanor fell, Grace appeared “very stressed,” trumpeted loudly and kept nudging Eleanor. She stayed with the dying Eleanor all night.

Scientists argue about whether that kind of behavior means what we humans impute to it, though it’s tough to see how expending time and effort to help an unrelated animal could be a genetically-based instinct.

In any case, this week also brought evidence that animals have an instinct for democracy.

As the British magazine New Scientist reports, macaques have a sense of what constitutes a majority vote. Before a group of Tonkean macaques moves, a single individual takes a few tentative steps, walks off to a distance of 3 to 15 feet, looks back, and waits, reported Odile Petit of the National Centre of Scientific Research in Strasbourg, France. Not surprisingly, the others eventually followed.

What was surprising was how the troop behaved when two monkeys had different ideas about where to go and what to do—forage or stay put, for instance. A few monkeys would line up behind each would-be leader (whose sex, age and status didn’t seem to matter: “Even the children can get the group moving,” Cédric Sueur, a graduate student who worked with Petit, told New Scientist), and once one of them had a clear majority the monkeys backing the losing candidate switched to the winner, avoiding fragmenting the troop.

Democracy in action.