Intra-species animal relationship

Evita Apalaki

Nature is regulated by strict unspoken rules. Among animals, the fastest eats the weakest, the strongest leads the herd, and the lonely animals are unable to survive in the wild. But what happens when a bear likes playing with a tiger or when a deer enjoys the company of a dog? It is really impressive how intra-species relationships can change the balance in an ecosystem, while simultaneously providing food for thought regarding the animal feelings in behavioral studies. 

Frequently, psychological observations on animals reveal expressional characteristics that resemble human patterns. Stressful situations may lead to the creation of bonding among animals of different species that, most of the time, have a predator-prey relationship when living in their natural habitat. For example, animal orphans that were separated from their mothers after birth, that live in unfavorable environments or are in danger of predators, may develop different needs of surviving that drive them to seek connections with other animals, even if they do not belong in the same species. For example, in the marine kingdom, some small fish species are attached to bigger aquatic animals, like sharks or whales, on which they start cleaning their outer skin layers. The result of this symbiotic activity is that small fishes are protected from predators while big ones are groomed by them. It is observed that younger animals more easily develop such contacts, often expressing themselves through games, whereas adult animals in lower numbers (around 10%) may develop such bonds of liking, expressed through companionship and socialization actions.

The available literature on animals’ behavior is not extensive, due to the fact that the scientific community only recently started to study such fields in a more organized way. When a new-born cub opens its eyes and faces its mother and her appearance, smell and touch are “imprinted” to the newborn’s memory. But imagine what happens if the first figure that a tiger cub sees is a bear?! The tiger does not have a specific idea about the image of a parent, so the animal that may offer protection, food and affection can be the perfect parental figure, no matter its appearance. This is called the  “Filial Imprinting” phenomenon, initially defined by Konrand Lorenz who was the first to observe the behavior of young birds during the recognition of their parents. The imprinting involves a specific time frame in the life of a young animal, usually the sensitive post-natal period. This is a time in which the newborn mimics behaviors, no matter what the consequences are.  One step further, is the similar phenomenon, “Sexual Imprinting”, during which animals develop their mating preferences. 

The relationships among different animals are usually non-sexual bonds that, in a broader meaning, can be considered as friendships. It is usually under stressful situations that may lead to such tendencies. For example, during captivation or domestication it is a frequent phenomenon to observe intra-species relationships. Zoos, farms and orphanages usually cover all the needs of animals for food and protection from predators. At the same time, these are places where animals of different species from all around the world can coexist in the same environment, which may not normally occur in the wild. Therefore, when the hosted animals do not have to consider practical issues for their survival, they can focus more on socialization. In the wild, there are less chances to find relationships among different animal species. Usually it is the “mutualism” that may bring them together, during which both parties enjoy the benefits of the relationship, usually for protection and food hunting.

Even if it is rare to spot such animal relationships in everyday life, there is a great variety of audio-visual material that captures the touching friendship stories of animals in different parts of the world. Wildlife biologist Liz Bonnin discovered several cases during a journey that she made around the world. Among them, the story of Pippin, the wild black-tailed deer and Kate, the Great Dane dog, stands out. It was more than 5 years ago when the owner of Kate found Pippin, newborn at that time, alone in the woods near the coast of Vancouver Island. When she brought the little deer into the house, Kate silently promised to be the stepmother of that vulnerable creature. By the time that Pippin decided to return back into the wild it was obvious that a deep friendship had begun. The deer returns to visit Kate every day, playing and relaxing with her, like family members that have a strong bond of love and appreciation.

It is quite impressive how nature can find new ways to surprise us. Animals can create relationships that resemble friendships, especially under stressful situations. Although it is difficult to determine from a scientific aspect how animals can experience “feelings”, many examples around the world prove that this may be normal. Apart from training and domestication which brings together animals of different environments, the lack of a parent, a predatory threat or captivity may be some of the case scenarios in which we find animals of different species behaving as partners. For those who have seen the movie Ice Age, we cannot forget Ellie, the mammoth who was raised with two opossums which she called “brothers”, after having been separated by her herd at a young age. After all, it is mother nature that teaches us that we are not born as enemies. The culture and environment we live in is important to the determination of how we see relationships with non-human animals.

Sources: American Bison: A Natural History (Organisms And Environments), Bored Panda, Interspecies Animal “Friendships”, Real Wild, Slate, Springer Nature