Outside the Herd

3 06 2012

Herd of walrus – photo courtesy John Sarvis, US Fish and Wildlife Service

So you think you are an individual? A free-thinker, unfettered by peer-pressure, doing what you want, going where you want, thinking original and uninfluenced thoughts? Dream on.

Humans, like many other animals, travel in herds – physically, intellectually, emotionally and, dare I say it, spiritually. We might like to think we are individuals, but in practice we don’t like to be too far from the norm. So what is the evolutionary benefit of herding?

The theory used to be that animals hung around in herds because they liked the company. WRONG!

Herding turns out to be a rather unfriendly thing to do…. Animals hang around in herds in the hope that their friends will be eaten instead of them. So long as you can be towards the middle of the herd and not on the outside, your chances of survival increase dramatically. Predators might pick off the old, the weak and the young…..but they also pick them off from the outskirts of the herd. If you are going to dash through crocodile-infested waters, best to be one of hundreds splashing about rather than the only one attempting the crossing.

Herd behaviour, as a theory, looks at how groups of individuals act together in a cohesive and seeming planned way, although each individual thinks they are behaving in their own personal interest and without influence. While each individual thinks they are making their own decisions, in an inter-related world (or market-place) where the decisions of one affects the outcomes for others, we take heed of the decisions of others when making our own decisions. And hence the herd seems to make a collective decision and act in concert.

Most obvious examples:
stockmarket fluctuations, bubbles, panics and crashes. No-one wants to be the last person holding the stock in a panic-selling situation.

fashion. We each think we are buying what we like and what suits us but somehow we seem to end up looking somewhat similar. Of course the additional outside influence here is what is offered for sale.

panicked mobs. Crowds trying to exit from a dangerous situation through a narrow exit behave increasingly irrationally, blocking exits rather than allowing each to exit safely.

rioting mobs. Herding behaviour is one of several theories about how a generally orderly society can occasionally break out into mob violence, with individuals doing violent and criminal acts that they would never normally contemplate. The current environment is factored into decision-making and in a riot, people behave like rioters.

Or as my grandmother would have it, Monkey see, Monkey do.

Want more? Try What is the psychology behind rioting

Prehistoric Australia

21 04 2012

at the entrance to the Naracoorte Caves National Park - perhaps fossils from the iron age????

Naracoorte is a small town in the south-east of the state of South Australia. It is about four hours drive from Adelaide, so more of an overnight stay than a day-trip, if being attempted with children.

Naracoorte was one of my favourite holiday places as a child – and more specifically, the Naracoorte Caves. These massive caves are naturally formed from the actions of water on limestone, and as well as featuring spectacular stalagmites (from the ground up), stalactites (from the ceiling down) helicotites (sideways!), columns and curtains (as they sound), they also feature fossils from prehistoric animals.

While there are no massive dinosaurs here, there are a large number of smaller fossils ranging from lizards and small rodents up to megafauna – giant prehistoric kangaroos and wombats, and my favourite, thylacaleo carnifex – the marsupial lion. The caves are still under excavation by archeologists so who knows what other animals will be found in the tonnes and tonnes of material yet to be sifted through.

The underground caves have guided tours while a few caves which have larger openings to the surface are self-guide. One of the caves is now home to a large colony of bats.

The rate of petrification in these caves is much (much) slower than the caves we visited in France, where the rate of water flow and the calcium load in the water was such that they could use it to petrify objects for the tourist trade. Here the stalactites, stalagmites etc grow at a miniscule rate.

another "iron age" fossil!

a banksia outside the caves

fairytale castles.....stalactites reflected in a perfectly still pond underground

these stagmites look like a nativity scene

stalactites formed along a crack in the ceiling

stalactites formed along a crack in the cave ceiling

a "curtain" stalactite feature

sink hole to the surface (looking upwards). These sorts of holes were how the animals fell into the caves and then were unable to get out again. Underneath these holes would be large piles of silt and rubble, unless a flood event had washed the rubble further into the cave.

Thylacaleo carnifex (marsupial lion)

Thylacaleo Carnifex (marsupial lion)

archeological dig

"Stanley" - megafauna kangaroo

thylacaleo carnifex - "Leo"

the archeological dig

Wet Cave

thylacaleo carnifex battling a giant snake


megafauna kangaroo (model)

columns in White Cave - look like architectural columns

Flinders University archeology digs in White Cave - each stripe in the soil indicates a different period of time

leaving White Cave

Want more pictures of Australian sites? Try….
Adelaide Botanic Gardens
In the red hot centre
Old Melbourne Jail and the Melbourne Aquarium

Old Melbourne Jail and the Melbourne Aquarium

31 03 2012

gardens outside Melbourne Museum

In May of 2010 we visited Melbourne to see the Titanic Exhibition at the Melbourne Museum. While we were impressed to be in the same room as some of the artefacts that had been brought up from the wreck on the ocean floor, it is fair to say the children, not being so well-acquiainted with the story and history, were underwhelmed. No photos of this I am afraid, photography was forbidden to the entire exhibition.

The children were more impressed with the Old Melbourne Jail and the connection to Ned Kelly – his armour, a bust of his head – and the flogging and scaffold. They are still somewhat amazed and shocked that human beings would do such things to each other. We followed this up with a visit to the Melbourne Aquarium (not really my thing, but I do love penguins and I love photographing jellyfish, even though they come out blurry because of their indeterminate borders. The othr big hit was the hop on hop off trams that loop around the city. Despite being packed, they were very impressed with them!


wool bombing in the gardens by the Melbourne Museum

whipping frame

exterior of the Old Melbourne Jail

exercise yards

Ned Kelly's death mask

Ned Kelly's home-made and ultimately ineffective armour

Love penguins!

There is a fish in this photo, well hidden. Can you see it? It is slightly more sparkly than the sand.

Leafy Sea Dragon


a mass of stars

a mass of stars


Want more photos of Australia? Try…
At the edge of the Ocean
Life is a beach

or subscribe – more photos to come.

How important is play?

13 02 2012

photo credit Jeremyiah

Parents and teachers will have been indoctrinated into the concept of play as a learning tool. It is important (we are told) for young children to have play-time in order to develop – gross motor skills, fine motor skills, social skills and an understanding of how to world works. Children who have been deprived of this opportunity (think of the terrible plight of Romanian orphans in the 1980s) have significant deficits in both their older childhood and their adulthood. Not to say that these things can’t be overcome, but the experiences of the child at an age when their brain connections are still forming can set the dominant and used connections for life. It’s pretty tough for an old brain to learn new tricks (connections).

For first-world parents, of course, this translates into guilt. Are you providing the right kind of play experiences? Are you providing the right kind of educational toys? Is your child hitting all of their milestones at the right time? Ka-ching, Ka-ching – the multinational toy companies know what you are thinking and they know how to press your buttons! (Click here for suggestions of the sorts of toys from which children really benefit. )

However a couple of recent articles have indicated how ingrained the concept of play is, and how it has played a survival function in evolution. Leading “play studies” scientist (there’s another job I want!) and author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Stuart Brown theorises that evolution favours those animals that are able to produce additional superfluous neural connections (eg through play) – connections that just might come in handy some time. Play keeps the brain flexible and helps it to think laterally and problem-solve. It helps you to develop courage and confidence to try new thinks

Author and former Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Dr Marc Bekoff says animals have rules about when and how to play. The rules are as follows:

1.Everyone must want to play.
2.Everyone has to cooperate — they work together — to keep the game from becoming fighting. (NOte to my children: wild animals know the difference between playing and fighting…..)
3.Everyone needs to communicate and pay attention to each other’s movements, sounds and smells.

Put that way, it’s obvious what benefit a senseless and trivial activity like play must have for animals – and humans. Play behaviour has been observed in mammals, reptiles, insects and fish – and probably other categories of animals as well.

The second play article that crossed my desk in the last two days is about starving polar bears playing with a sled dog (as opposed to eating it). As well as featuring a video link of starving wild polar bears playing with sled dogs, this article also refers to evidence that animals that play tend to live longer and pass on their genes. (Of course it is also possible that animals that play are more attractive to the opposite sex….. but that’s just my take on things, not anything scientifically based!)

Play Scientist Stuart Brown’s book is available here: Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul

Interested in Neuroscience? Can I recommend the following book by UK neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield: Tomorrow’s People: How 21st-Century Technology Is Changing the Way We Think and Feel

Feeling the animal inside…

16 10 2011

this is not me!

In my teens I avoided animal print clothes. Generally animal print clothes in the 1980s were printed on fairly cheap t-shirt material. The material was slightly see-through, stretched, and was often-ill-fitting to start with. It faded in a wash or two. The entire exercise screamed “cheap, cheap!” And this was in an era where matching plastic brooches, bangles and earrings were considered fashionable.

Somehow I never grew out of my aversion to animal print. My 20s and 30s were likewise animal-print free, with the exception of some very cute and slightly furry Guess leaopard-print jeans, which I wore with a plain dark blazer and heels. The fact they were Guess, and that they were jeans, made them somehow different from the cheap semi-see-through animal print t-shirt that had caused such horrors in my mind. Frankly, if they still fitted, I would still wear those jeans. I think I still have them somewhere.

So I was intrigued the other day to receive a Facebook posting from a friend discussing how she didn’t wear animal-print. And I suddenly realised that I did.

Now I am in my mid-40s and animal print starts to be a viable option. I fear I may be turning into Jackie Collins only without the publishing contract and the house in Hollywood Hills.

Perhaps it is because I can afford better quality animal-print. Perhaps it is because animal-print now comes in structured clothing like tailored blazers and coats (Perri Cutten). Perhaps I have more confidence, or have moved into a different (read: older) “fashion” category.

But somehow, animal print is increasingly a part of my wardrobe, and even my work attire. Perhaps animal print is an inevitable part of life, like, um, well I don’t know. Death and taxes? Wrinkles and grey hair?

Who could have imagined?

10 reasons the rabbit thinks he is a dog

22 09 2011

The rabbit doesn’t seem to have a good understanding of himself or his relationship with other members of the household. If he were human, we might diagnose him as having dissociative identity disorder……He seems to think he is a dog, and in some ways he is a better dog than the dogs. With apologies to the dogs, but really, they should lift their game.

1. he eats dog food – and he is first at the bowl. The dogs stand back and watch him. Not sure what the vet will think about this diet.

2. he is house trained. It was remarkably easy. The only problem is he does like to scratch and dig in the litter tray.

3. he comes when he is called. He also answers to a variety of nicknames. (dogs are not reliable for this)

4. he attacks the dogs – he is the alpha of the pack. This may be a pre-emptive strike, but he seems to ignore the dogs’ attempts to scare him.

5. he thinks it is OK to hop onto your lap. Even when you are eating at the dinner table. (This is not tolerated in the dogs – or from the rabbit.)

6. He hops on the bed. Again – this is not tolerated, but it doesn’t stop him. It’s a bit of a shock when you are lying down and a rabbit suddenly lands on your stomach.

7. he thinks it is his right to be picked up, held and patted. All the time.

8. he has been microchipped. First time the vet had microchipped a rabbit! He had his nails trimmed at the same time. Just like the dogs.

9. he understands “no”. Again, the dogs are not reliable on this one.

10. he thinks he should have the run of the house. Despite being held captive in the tiled area of the house, every time a door is opened he makes a run at it. He is fast, but not has fast as me. No! rabbit.

If you liked this post, you might like more adventures of the rabbit, Anthropomorphising or New Boss in Town.

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18 09 2011

the rabbit helps himself to dinner

Ran into a friend yesterday and our talk turned to pet rabbits – as it does.

I was saying that our rabbit (about which I have previously written) seems to have attached itself to its owner, recognises his voice and loves being picked up and held. However I was commenting that it is hard to tell if a rabbit actually likes something. It doesn’t seem to have any facial expression. And it doesn’t wag its tail like a dog. We gather it likes being held because it appears to ask to be picked up. And when held, it sits passively and uncomplainingly.

Of course, it might just be resigned to its fate.

However my friend said that their (late) rabbit had a sense of humour. And of course, I enquired as to how she could tell.

There were two stories. The first was its predilection for humping men’s legs – preferably men wearing shorts. While amusing, it occurred to me that this actually reflected my friend’s sense of humour rather than necessarily the rabbit’s.

The second story however was pretty funny.

Their rabbit had free run of the back yard during the daytime. While they were having renovations done, my friend was watching from inside the house. The builder set up a string line to ensure that he was laying bricks in a straight line. As he turned his back to pick up the bricks, the rabbit, which had been hiding in the bushes, ran out and bit the string line, breaking it. Then it ran back into its hiding spot in the bushes. Apparently this happened about four times until the builder worked out what was happening – all the while my friend was laughing uncontrollably inside the house (which is what we did before LOLs).

So maybe the rabbit did have a sense of humour.

If you like this post you might also like Old Dogs, and New boss in town.