Know Thine Enemy

July 4, 2011

Torah Kachur

It would seem instrinsic that a species evolves to know its natural enemy.  But just how specific is an organisms ability to determine friend from foe? Or do organisms naturally have 'frenemies'? 


The warring ant (Temnothorax longispinosus) species have the ability to tell the difference between four different species of ants and can temper their attacks to the most dangerous enemy.  In this case, they don't waste energy attacking less dangerous foe.  This study shows the incredible ability of species recognition prior to attack - the ability to predict an aggressive species and respond in kind.  But it begs the larger question of whether enemy recognition is an innate trait or something that is learnt.


Warring Ants Torah Kachur Science in Seconds


The warring ant is one of many examples of enemy recognition - in a now classic experiment done in 1937 that finds its way into every single introductory psychology course - goslings raised in captivity scramble for safety when the image below is shown moving from left to right because it is suggestive of one of their worst enemies - the Eagle. 


                  Goose Eagle Tinbergen Lorenz


However, when the exact same image is shown moving from right to left it looks more like a harmless goose and the goslings simply go about their day being adorable.  This has been touted to represent an inherent or instinctual ability to recognize enemies.  But this isn't the only way to share the knowledge of who will eat you.  Mobbing behaviour has been observed in many organisms from Meerkats to Crows and they seem to use it to teach each other who their enemies are.  Or, in the case of mobbing in humans, evidence of stupidity.


Can we know who our enemies really are?  Should we envy the warring ants for their instinctual knowledge?  Or can we just all be as lovely as me and therefore have no enemies?




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