It Makes You Think

On our last field day, the monkeys started alarming and I followed them to a patch of Bromelia pinguin–a large, cactus-like ground-dwelling bromeliad that usually makes our life hell. The plant grows in a whorl of sawblades tipped with hooked spines. They usually grow too close together to pass through, and have a habit of reaching out their long serrated fronds over our paths. They grow to about waist-height, perfect for a little DIY appendectomy should you trip and fall into one.

However, the monkeys were reserving their outrage for what was in the bromeliads: a young boa constrictor, all laid out and resting along a leaf, snug between spines. The monkeys threatened at it for a while, dropped things, tried to impress each other with their courage, shrieked in fear, formed coalitions against the snake, threatened some more, competed for better positions to assert their courage against the snake, made sure the alpha was watching them, tried to manipulate the situation to better their social standing, threatened some more, threatened us for good measure, then got bored and wandered off to eat and fuck each other as they typically do.

Short tempers, even shorter attention span.

But I, naturally, stayed with the snake. I was impressed it was able to find a comfortable spot without being impaled. I guess a limbless, scaled body was a great advantage to maneuver into a spot where it could avoid predators (birds, cats) and ambush prey trying to do the same.

Whenever I get this close to BP, I end up looking like a Clive Barker extra.

For an animal, the agency to choose a location for ambush or shelter is strongly selected for. It’s quite simple: animals that choose better spots will eat more and get eaten less. Classic positive reinforcement, as long as those choices are genetically influenced. That’s just basic evolution. But is all of their behavior is simple reinforced patterns? Is there any cognition involved?

Imagine if you were to pick a hiding spot. You would have to take into account your needs, but also try to think as your predator or prey. You’d have to project. You’d have to empathize. You would have to imagine yourself in the mind of another creature, and take into account a whole new suite of needs and capabilities.

Nearby that snake was a river, where we often see iguanas resting on overhanging tree limbs. When they hear us approach, they dive into the water with a terrific crash. Do they know predators aren’t likely to swim after them? Are they choosing specifically to sleep above water? Or have all the iguanas that rested over land simply been eaten already?

Maybe they like the expression we make when a giant lizard lands with a splash a few meters away. That, too, is positive reinforcement.

Perhaps a greater question is more self-reflective: if we speculate that animals have advanced cognition rather than selected behavior, what then is the difference? Are we demonstrating anything more than seleceted behavior? Is our intelligence really more than a–albeit, vastly complex–pattern of behavior?

This is all getting way more philosophical and speculative than I normally prefer. Really, this whole thing came to me in the heat of a long day, near the end of a long month, while I was more than a little dehydrated. Shoot, it was probably just an excuse to stick around and take more pictures of a large snake. Anything to liven up the day.

It’s been a slow month.

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