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Behaviour Bites: The uncomfortable truth about that penguin video

A brilliant thing about the internet is how natural events are immediately accessible to the world-wide public.  Someone can record a cheetah jumping onto their safari car and I can watch it in my Netherlands office less than 24 hours later.  Sadly, most animal videos that go viral are ones that feature animal behaviour that we think directly relates to us, humans – the real stars of the show – but rarely does the behaviour (or the animal in the video, for that matter) have anything to do with us.  Attributing human-like characteristics to non-human things is called “anthropomorphism.”  It’s a natural part of our psyche and explains why we find Elvis in potato chips or Kate Middleton in jelly beans.

Those who genuinely study animal behaviour (ethologists) first learn to recognize anthropomorphism, no matter how subtle, and then train for years to view situations from a strictly behavioural standpoint.  You may look at a dolphin and say it’s “smiling.”  An ethologist will look at that same dolphin and say it simply has its mouth closed.  You may say the dog is “laughing,” an ethologist will say the dog associates small high-pitched barks in quick succession with a reward.  Does this mean that ethologists view animals coldly and without emotion?  No.  It means that ethologists want to decode what the animal is saying, rather than force our meanings or motives into their mouths.  We just see the potato chip.

Now, I hate to also be a wet blanket, but I often get terribly, terribly vexed when I see these videos, so I have decided that when I am not singing about science, I will explain the real behaviour featured in these popular videos.  Warning, this video cannot be unseen:

If you have a video suggestion for the next behaviour bites, please leave it in the comments!