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The Secret Social Lives of Animals

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Tasmanian Devil

For a long time, humans assumed animals lived solitary, asocial lives. But modern research has revealed rich and complex social structures in everything from cows to squirrels. Many animals form close friendships, adopt orphans, and even use names for each other. Understanding the social lives of animals provides fascinating insights into both human and animal behavior.

Cows Crave Companionship

Cows aren’t exactly known for their sparkling personalities. But it turns out our bovine friends have hidden depths. Cows are highly social herd animals that form tight social bonds, especially between mothers and daughters.

Researchers at the University of Northampton in the UK found that cows have best friends and get stressed when they are separated. By observing groups of cows for months, they identified close friend pairs who spent all their time together. When the cow friends were separated, even for a short time, their heart rates skyrocketed. But when reunited, the cows were overjoyed, sniffing each other and gently stroking faces with their tongues.

Just like humans, some cows are more popular than others. The researchers discovered a social hierarchy within the herd. Cows lower down the social ladder get pushed out of the way when food is delivered. But the popular cows act as social glue, spending time with all the groups.

Understanding cow sociability has important implications for farming practices. Cows are less stressed and produce more milk when they can establish social hierarchies and bonds with their herd. So having best friends isn’t just good for a cow’s social life, it’s good for dairy farmers too!

Baby Tasmanian Devils Form Lifelong Bonds

Tasmanian devils are notoriously solitary and aggressive. But new research shows a softer side to these feisty marsupials. Scientists in Tasmania studied devils from birth to adulthood and found they form lifelong friendships.

Baby Tasmanian devils are affectionate and playful with their siblings. They frequently touch noses and wrestle gently together. And these bonds last long after they leave the nest. Researchers were surprised to find adult devils hanging out in pairs. The buddies slept side by side and brought each other food. Some friendship pairs lasted over a decade.

Understanding the social lives of Tasmanian devils provides insight into why their populations are declining. Tasmanian devils are fighting a contagious and deadly facial tumor disease. But devils seem to protect their friends from infection. Researchers observed healthy devils grooming and feeding sick friends, keeping them alive longer. Promoting devil friendships could help them survive this crisis.

Queen Mole Rats Rule with an Iron Paw

Naked mole rats are strange creatures that live underground in colony tunnels. They have a strict caste system dominated by a single breeding queen. But new research shows mole rat social structures are more complex than we realized.

Biologists in Kenya studied mole rat colonies in the wild. They were surprised to find most colonies contained two breeding females. The queen actively suppressed the fertility of the “subordinate” female by bullying her. When the subordinate was removed from the colony, she quickly became fertile and tried to sneak back to start her own colony.

Researchers found that without a subordinate female, the queen became stressed and started attacking her subordinates. She even became infertile herself. This suggests the social hierarchy actually benefits the despotic mole rat queen, giving her an heir if she dies.

Understanding the cooperative yet cruel social Dynamics of mole rats provides parallels to human monarchies and class systems. It shows how social structures serve to maintain power, even when they seem pointlessly cruel.

Orphaned Baby Squirrels Get Adopted

When their mothers die, baby squirrels often face starvation. But new research shows they have a surprising survival strategy – getting adopted by lactating squirrel moms.

Biologists in Canada were shocked to observe lactating squirrels adopting orphaned wild babies. The squirrel moms built extra nests and moved the orphans between their own babies, nursing and caring for all the squirrelings equally. Genetic testing confirmed the adoptees were unrelated to their foster moms.

Further studies revealed orphaned baby squirrels give off telltale distress calls when hungry. The calls trigger a maternal instinct in nearby lactating squirrels. Adopting the orphans improves their chances of surviving winter.

This amazing adopt-a-squirrel program reveals altruism in nature. Squirrels are going above and beyond to save baby squirrel lives, even when the orphans are unrelated strangers. It seems humans aren’t the only animals that can lend a helping hand.

Dolphins Have Names for Each Other

Dolphins are highly intelligent and social mammals that live in pods. Researchers discovered dolphins actually have individual names they call each other.

Marine biologists at the University of St. Andrews recorded dolphins off the coast of Scotland. They identified signature whistles individual dolphins made to identify themselves. Amazingly, the dolphins mimic each other’s whistles as names when interacting. A mother dolphin will use a specific whistle when calling her calf.

The researchers found evidence these dolphin names convey semantic information. When a dolphin named Sasha met another dolphin, the researchers played Sasha’s signature whistle. Immediately Sasha turned to look for the familiar dolphin, suggesting the name evoked that specific individual.

Dolphins also modify the names with different pitches and suffixes to convey emotions. A higher pitch indicates excitement, while a low growl signals aggression. This rudimentary language ability reveals the complexity of dolphin social relationships and communication.


Beneath their alien and inscrutable exteriors, animals have rich and fascinating social lives. As researchers uncover surprising new evidence about animal friendships, communication, and family bonds, we gain profound insights into both human and animal psychology.

Observing animal social behavior teaches us that qualities like empathy, altruism and friendship are not unique to humans but are found throughout the animal kingdom. We are linked in surprising ways to cows, squirrels and even naked mole rats. Understanding how animals create social bonds provides a window into our own behavior as ultra-social mammals.

So the next time you see a cow, dolphin or Tasmanian devil, remember they aren’t just solitary wild animals. They have names, best friends, and complex social hierarchies – just like you!

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