Prairie dogs exhibit a high degree of social cooperation within their families.
In a classic bison jam, a herd of several hundred 1200-pound beasts crossed Highway 26/89 near Moran, Wyoming and the traffic slammed to a stop while they passed. When all were safely across, they spread out in the pasture on the east side of the road and the traffic resumed business.
It was interesting to observe all these individuals behave as one, sometimes called a herd mentality. Even with animals as large and powerful as these, living in a group has its advantages—largely many eyes to spot enemies, but I have seen bison band together to drive off predators as well.
Cooperation is a process where individuals work together to create a, “greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts” outcome. Cooperation in nature isn’t new. In fact, it starts at the cellular level. Only through extensive cooperation between cells could higher organisms exist. But even at the social level, cooperation between individuals of the same species is more common than you might believe.
Insects seem to have advanced the social cooperation model the furthest. Called eusocial, or true sociality, insects such as ants have divided up jobs (breeding queens, non-fertile workers and soldiers, etc.) and developed complex patterns of movement and communication. Two other key elements include cooperative care of the young and overlapping generations.
Social cooperation takes many forms, from the extreme of the insect world to something relatively simple such as the bison, to the unique human model. One specific form of cooperation is often referred to as kin selection. Here, animals of a group may help to rear a relative’s offspring, often forgoing producing offspring of their own. This may seem unwise from the individual’s standpoint, but if it is raising related offspring, scientists argue that they are still improving their own fitness.
Prairie dogs live in colonies that may reach into the hundreds. Each colony is further divided into family groups called coteries comprised of one male, and several related breeding females. When the pups are born in late spring, their mothers nurse them until they can venture above ground. Then nursing and training become a family affair. Meanwhile, each adult takes a turn as a lookout while the others forage. If a predator is spotted, the lookout issues a warning cry and everyone heads below ground.
Wolves share a kin selection relationship. The Alpha pair does the breeding and all pack members join in raising the pups.
Wolves are also cooperative hunters. I once witnessed three wolves bring down a cow elk in Nymph Lake in Yellowstone National Park. It was fascinating to see how the wolves worked together in a coordinated attack to bring down this animal that was five times larger than them.
Even birds get into the cooperative spirit. For instance, bluebirds often raise two or even three broods during the breeding season. They accomplish this partly because the young birds from earlier nests stick around to help raise their brothers and sisters in subsequent broods.
Cooperation among animals can be quite complex and scientists are still trying to understand it. Scientists being scientists, they are always trying to explain behavior in the context of individual survival or fitness and reproductive success. How does cooperation benefit the individual? There is little room for altruism in science.
Thankfully, humans aren’t science experiments. There is a lot of good done in this old world just because someone believed it was the right thing to do, with nothing other than feeling good for a reward. Sharing and cooperation are at the heart of that.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Harriman State Park, Island Park
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho