By Catherine Bartlett, Education Program Manager
What do limp lizards, a bundle of bats, and fresh fecal samples have in common? Love. Well, maybe not love exactly but each can certainly be seen as an act of generosity in the animal world. Of the five love languages (words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, acts of service, receiving gifts) animals exhibit each, in some way. While we humans know that nature itself is a gift, what else can we learn from the wild gift-givers in nature?
Animals are inherently competitive. Resource allocation is the root of many a squabble (after all isn’t possession 9/10ths of the law?). Access to space, food, water, and mates ups an individual’s evolutionary fitness, that is, the potential to pass on genes. For a kingdom steeped in violent acts, why would some species willingly give up valuable resources? For the same reason–to increase the likelihood that they, or their family member, will maximize their evolutionary fitness. Playing nice and sharing is simply another strategy for survival.
Gentoo penguins court using perfect pebbles, bonobos will share food to make a friend, and even a domestic cat will leave ‘gifts’ of dead animals for its owner to reaffirm family bonds. (Side note– keep your cats indoors).
Here in the Sonoran Desert, you can find a plethora of animals who utilize those love languages. Roadrunners are notorious for nuptial gift-giving. They are opportunistic predators that feast on lizards, rodents, insects, and snakes. When a male catches a reptile, it will slam the lizard or snake on a rock or the ground to kill it. The lifeless lizard is offered to a female and if accepted, they share the scaly snack while copulating. Seems like a lot of coordination, but hey it works for them!
Additionally, many species give their gifts in the form of help, or time, or cooperative parental care. Prairie dogs have complex, though not hierarchical, social structures and advanced communication. There are even dialects and cultural differences between colonies. Prairie dogs give kisses to establish and reinforce social bonds. Bats, too, engage in mutually beneficial social behaviors such as group foraging or huddling for warmth. A bat nursery, or maternity roost, is a group of reproductive female bats that are pregnant, nursing, or weaning their babies. During foraging when most bats leave to find food, babies cuddle in clusters (called crèches) and an unrelated female bat will stay behind. These babysitters often help by guarding the colony or carrying fallen pups back up to the roost.
Cockroaches and termites give a different sort of gift to their young. Since cellulose (found in plants and wood) is so difficult to process, these animals have gut symbionts that break it down. Those symbionts get passed on to offspring through proctodeal trophallaxis. The young feed on liquid that the adult excretes to get that gift of a healthy gut microbiome- a veritable bacterial smoothie. Thanks, mom! Additionally, there are many arthropods who set their offspring up for success by laying their egg(s) next to a nutritious first meal so that a newly hatched larvae has its own packed lunch. Examples include leafcutter, mason, and carpenter bees leaving pollen balls in a brood cell, dung beetles and their present of poo, and Pepsis wasps leaving paralyzed tarantulas for their progeny.
To be sure, parental care, resource allocation, and communication in animals can all be seen as a way of life and not just gift-giving. But sometimes stepping back, observing nature, and appreciating the world around us is a gift itself. After all, hissss the season.