Sunday, February 13, 2005

Animal behaviour

Wildlife soundtracks usually go on about the 'instinct' that animals possess which allows them to sense a forest fire and make good their escape. This would, of course, be a useful instinct to have, but it is hard to see how it could have evolved: most fires would presumably wipe out an entire population or leave it more or less intact, and so would not affect ability to reproduce.

But there is no need to get mystical: panic is highly contagious, so only a few need recognise a danger. One of the best G K Chesterton stories, 'The Oracle of the Dog', revolves around the interpretation of a dog's beahaviour as if it were a person (he's whining because his master has died) rather than a dog (he's whining because the stick thrown into the sea sank before he could fectch it). Read it here:

So do we need any special sense to explain animals' behaviour near forest fires? Fires are highly distinctive to all senses: scent, sound, heat, flames and smoke, all are quite outside the normal environment, and fear of the unknown or unusual is a basic, genuine, instinct.

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