Can wild animals really “sense” the fear in other animals?

Answer by Rory Young:


There are many external physical signs of fear. These may or may not be detectable depending on the species manifesting them and the species observing.

The eyes are the strongest indicator and easiest for us to pick up, although different animals rely on different dominant senses.

Many animals show the sclera or the whites of their eyes to display surprise or fear. We do the same, our eyes widen in fear or surprise as do many animals.

Here are pictures of a dog and then a human showing fear. Look at the eyes:

Dog expressing fear.

Baby expressing fear.

Here are two images of an elephant eyes. The first shows a relaxed animal and the second is showing fear..

There are many other signs of fear. These are all known as fight or flight responses.

Breathing and heart rate speed up. This is directly related to the fight or flight response. The animal is gearing up to run or fight. It needs oxygen and increased heart rate to be able to use its physical abilities to the max. We are the same of course. Think about the last time you got a big fright.

Relaxation of the sphincter muscles means that they can defecate fear. I have seen this often with both baboons and vervet monkeys treed by leopards. This also happens with people in cases of extreme fear.

The tear and saliva glands shut down which means a dry mouth and eyes. This is of course difficult to see but if an animal is dripping saliva from its mouth it could indicate a lack of fear.

The pupils dilate. Add this to the sclera showing and together they transform the eye. The reason for the pupil dilating is so that the animal can see better.

Animals and people can urinate in fear. This is very common among apes.

Shaking is very common especially once the adrenaline really starts flowing.. Muscle tension is also common and this is obvious in cats. Lions' tails twitch, domestic cats' backs arch and the hair on their back rises. People raise their shoulders.

Lastly there is smell. When animals and people experience fear a part of the brain called the amygdala can allow the release of homones including epinephrine and norepinephrine and cortisol. We may not smell a difference but a dog, elephant, bee or other animal with an exceptional sense of smell  or the ability to sense pheremones may well pick up a change caused by these.

Sensing fear in the animal world is a fact. My own personal experience is that in tense situations with elephants or lions showing fear is not a good idea. The best way to handle it is not to pretend but to train yourself to be calm or even better to transform fear to controlled aggression. In this regard fear and aggression are closely related.

My own experience dealing with wild African animals on foot has taught me that knowledge, experience and confidence can reduce fear when dealing with animals and the best way of not having them pick it up is to not be afraid. It is easy to start using my rifle as a safety blanket (that doesn't sound right!) but the best is to avoid encounters which could cause fear in the animals or ourselves. But should it happen then the fear has to be controlled.

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Would less than lethal rounds have any affect on an elephant?

Answer by Rory Young:

Yes. They would enrage the animal. There are much better ways to deter elephants which I will explain further on.

This is what you have coming at you if you piss him off!

I was just recently looking into a story about three people who were killed fairly recently in Kazungula in Zambia (Elephant kills 3 people in Kazungula) and subsequently discovered that it had been shot with bird-shot from a shot-gun the night before.

This sort of scenario is quite common with elephants. In a misguided attempt to deter them from crops people end up making them dangerous and this often ends in tragedy.

There are better ways to deter them such as hot pepper plants for example. Have a look at Elephant Pepper They can be planted or the pepper mixed with old engine oil and smeared on twine which is then strung around areas that need to be protected.

Elephants hate these!

Electric fences are popular but elephants often quickly learn how to break them without being shocked.

Chillies can also be mixed with green vegetation or dung and burnt. The smoke is a deterrent to elephants.

Burning a mixture of elephant dung and chillies.

Elephants don’t like noise so banging pots helps. However, this should be done from a good distance and preferably indoors as from close by it can cause the elephants to charge. Shots fired can also work but of course one should never fire a shot into the air (what goes up must come down) so blank cartridges are best.

Bright and flashing lights are also useful but again not from anywhere near the elephant/s as these can also cause them to attack.

All in all, chillies and other such “passive” deterrents are the safest methods for all concerned.

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How is it possible that the animals ran to the hills hours before the Tsunami hit?

Answer by Rory Young:

There are numerous such stories from all over the world and throughout history about animals warning of impending natural cataclysm. The Roman writer  Claudius Aelianus  wrote that for five days prior to the destruction of the Greek city of Helike by earthquake and tsunami "all the mice and martens and snakes and centipedes and beetles and every other creature of that kind in the city left in a body" and on the night prior to the earthquake none were left.

Which heightened senses in animals could account for these stories and what could they be detecting?

Sight and smell can only detect certain dangers that are close by. Hearing is a different story however.

There are two types of hearing. The first is acoustic hearing.

Beyond our range of hearing there is ultrasound, which is above our range of hearing and there is infrasound which is below our range of hearing.

Canids are well known for their ability to hear ultrasound and to be able to hear much softer sounds than us.Bats use it for radar navigation Some apes too have this ability.

The Bat eared fox uses its incredible hearing to detect its termite prey.

Guerrilla fighters from ZANLA based in Mozambique during the Rhodesian Bush War used baboons as air raid warnings. Once it had survived one attack by the Rhodesian Airforce, a baboon would be able to tell well in advance that a group of planes was on its way.

Chacma baboon

I have been unable to find out if any of this animals in the Japan Earthquake and Tsunami had previously experienced earthquakes or tremors. However, there is the possibility that the reaction could have evolved as an innate instinct.

Infrasound travels further. Elephants routinely communicate at 12 km from each other. Snakes detect infrasound through their bellies.

The other type of hearing used by some animals is seismic hearing.

Seismic hearing involves listening to vibrations through the substrate. This can be the ground itself or simply a leaf. Seismic communication is widespread in the animal kingdom and its users include moles, many species of rodents, skunks,  deer, elephant shrews, marsupials, rabbits and elephants.

Elephants use seismic communication.

The use of seismic hearing in animals ranges from elephants hearing a heard charging in panick from up to 32 kms away to a beetle tapping the ground to attract a mate.

There is no need to go into the details of what reasons animals might use seismic communication for. What is important in relation to the question is that these animals can pick up seismic sound incredibly well.

What is completely unknown and unstudied however is what exactly they are detecting.

When an earthquake occurs 'the "p" (primary) waves travel through the earth's crust about twice as fast as the "s" (secondary) waves, so they arrive first. The greater the distance, the greater the delay between them. For an earthquake strong enough to be felt over several hundred kilometers (approximately M > 5) this can amount to some tens of seconds difference. The P waves are also weaker, and often unnoticed by people. Thus the signs of alarm reported in the animals at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., some five to ten seconds prior to the shaking from the M 5.8 2011 Virginia earthquake, was undoubtedly prompted by the p-waves. This was not so much a prediction as a warning of shaking from an earthquake that has already happened.*

Seismic waves in the Earth

So this could account for reactions shortly prior to earthquakes and especially for tsunamis caused by earthquakes that have occurred very far away. It cannot
however account for the records of animals reacting hours or even days before.

There is the possibility that they react to changes in seismic or other activity prior to the earthquake happening. This could very likely be possible if they have previously been exposed to an earthquake and this is why.

There is something as I use routinely in my work. An American tracker named Tom Brown Jnr. coined a term for it; "The Baseline Symphony".

When I have been away from the bush for a while I will, on returning, first spend anything from hours to days walking on my own. By doing so I "tune in" to this "baseline symphony".

The best way of explaining it is that it is all normal sounds, pressures, temperatures, light and other activity that is routine all combining to create a feeling of harmony.

If I am walking along and suddenly notice a change to this baseline symphony I stop and really pay attention as it means something is afoot. It can be the approach of a predator which has led to a change in bird calls or it can be a change in wind direction meaning a change in weather or a myriad of other things. Sometimes there is a really dramatic change to the baseline symphony where several dramatic changes occur at once. My strongest memory of this was when firearms have been used by poachers nearby to where I have been but to far to hear directly.

I believe all animals, especially wild animals use this "sixth sense" routinely. It is not a "stand alone" sense but sort of a "right-brain" usage combination of all the other senses to produce a "gut feeling".

In the case of an imminent earthquake is it not possible that prior to its occurrence there is a dramatic change to the baseline symphony? Perhaps a combination of seismic sound, sound from the ocean and air, air pressure?

There is no evidence for this little theory. I would not be surprised though to find that despite not knowing how animals can detect an imminent earthquake, that practical people don't start using animals for earthquake warning  like the ZANLA guerrillas used baboons for air-raid warning..


Earthquake prediction… )

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When did you know you had to do something about it?

Answer by Rory Young:

It was attitude. These people were not taking my safety instructions seriously.

Canoeing safaris are potentially extremely dangerous. The only thing that makes them safe is the guide knowing what he is doing and the clients following his instructions to the T.

Hippos have to be avoided carefully whilst choosing the right route round them. There are a whole bunch of things that will upset them, like going through the deep channel when they are in the shallows or getting between them and the low bank or "exit-chutes". Surprising them is also a really bad idea. Getting these things wrong will get your canoe bitten in half if you are lucky and get you bitten in half if you're not..

There are crocodiles up to fourteen foot long and lots of them. Just trailing your hand in the water can mean losing it or losing your life.

Then of course there are all the land animals, including Cape buffaloes, lions, elephants, leopards, hyaenas, mambas and so on and so on.

We were mid-way through the first day and these people had signaled to me that they needed to stop. When we had pulled into the bank to of the middle aged housewife-type ladies had requested to go to "the bathroom".

I had been continuously signalling them all morning to get behind me because they kept wandering across the river. Clearly they did not understand the extreme danger, despite the hour long safety talk.

I pulled my rifle out of its jacket and climbed out of the canoe onto the river bank. I told everyone not to move and then walked the immediate vicinity, checking for scaries.

Once I was sure it was all safe I explained that they must go behind THAT termite mound and NOWHERE ELSE! I explained it was dangerous, there were all sorts of things that could kill them and so on and so forth. I could see it going in one ear and out the other. I was starting to get irritated.

I offered them "Doug" the spade, a toilet roll  and a box of matches. The idea was to burn the paper carefully before burying the ashes and whatever else had been created. They declined. Okay, not a safety issue,just gross for a woman I thought. Still I was there to keep them alive not to admire their personal hygiene.

As I hopped back into my canoe, they toddled off in the opposite direction to the agreed upon termite mound. Now I was pissed. There was a tiny bush very nearby the way they were heading. Couldn't be that, it was too close. They must be heading for the distant bushes that hadn't been checked.

Now I had had enough. Now I knew I really had to do something about it before someone got killed.

I jumped out of the canoe and started towards them as they reached the small bush. They stopped in front of it.

Then something happened that shook me to my core..

Both standing, they put their left hands on their hips and their right hands in front of them and started peeing. Yes. Standing. Just like blokes.

Now I am not a prude at all but this was just bloody weird. It was too confusing. They looked just like the middle-aged, plump American housewives I had been sure they were.

I turned back to my canoe and looked at their "husbands". Both gazed back at me with poker faces.

I sat waiting for them to finish their pee and thought about some of the strange people that I had encountered.

There were the Danish naturists. No one had warned me that they were naturists or Danish. I had turned around in the middle of the first day to discover a flotilla of nudists following me down the river with big smiles on their faces. Lunch on the first day had been an education in eye control.

There had been the Greek chap too with a phobia for germs and insects who had covered himself from head to toe in bright purple gentian violet.

Before I could reminisce any further about all the odd-balls I seemed to end up with, the "ladies" came back.

Before I could say anything they both swished their right hands in the river.

I was just about to let them have it when one said, "oh sorry we're not supposed to put our hands in the water". She really did sound like a woman. And then, "we just deeded to wash our Fuds".

"Pardon?", I said, "what is a Fud?".

Blasted, weirdo foreigners. Now they were really confusing the hell out of me.

"Oh here, look", she said and handed me an oblong shaped cup with a pipe sticking out the bottom of it. "It's my Female Urinary Device. FUD".

Then, "May the FUD be with you", she said and I fell over laughing.

Needless to say the rest of the trip was laugh-a-minute with this lot. Definitely one of the most enjoyable canoeing safaris I did. Long live strange middle-aged Americans"!

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If a tiger fought a lion, which animal would win?

Answer By Rory Young

I am going to specifically answer this in terms of one male tiger going up against one male lion.

Although female lions hunt as prides, male lions spend most of their lives alone. They are forced out of the pride when they reach around two years.

If they manage to take over a pride of their own they will usually only manage to keep it for a couple of years. During the time they have a pride they will spend most of their time fighting off potential usurpers.

When they do not have a pride they frequently fight with other solitary males that they bump into and of course pride males in their attempts to take control of a pride.

So, a male lion spends his life fighting. In fact they spend so much time fighting and not eating properly and stressed out that they only live to about ten years old while females usually live to about fifteen.

The reason a male lion has a mane is for defense in fighting. They fight like wrestlers, facing off, gripping each other and trying to overpower each other. I have watched them fighting many times and have come across two dead males over the years. Both had been bitten through the spine. From what I have read, this is pretty much the norm.

So, the mane is a pretty effective defense in a cat-fight. To get round it requires some serious dominance in the fight as it means out wrestling the opponent to the point of being able to bite them through the spine. Tigers do not have this defense.

Photo: Examples of extraordinary battles in nature

Tigers are solitary animals and although heavier than lions, they are shorter than lions at the shoulder. The weight difference is about 15% which is significant but not enough I believe to mean an overwhelming advantage for tiger, especially since they have a height disadvantage.

In terms of behaviour, male tigers usually solve their disputes via display and intimidation, preferring to avoid each other. Now in terms of fighting, this lack of experience when going up against a pro IS an overwhelming disadvantage.

This is like putting a heavy inexperienced amateur fighter in ring with a taller, leaner professional with a mean history of fights under his belt.

A no-brainer. The lion wins hands down. Size really isn’t everything..

EDIT: Yes, I agree a tiger in a zoo will kill a lion. The whole point I have been making here is that a male lion would probably win against a male tiger because a male lion has a lifetime experience of fighting other male lions. Male tigers do not usually fight except occasionally over a female in oestrus. A lion that had grown up in a zoo would obviously not have gained the experience!


How smart are elephants?

Answer by Rory Young:

“The animal which surpasses all others in wit and mind”, said Aristotle.

Mature Female African Elephant

Since Aristotle and long before, people who have been privileged to spend time observing and interacting with elephants have expressed similar sentiments.

They have been trained for thousands of years to do everything from play soccer to destroy the enemy on the battlefield. They were the tanks of the ancient world and the front end loaders and the tractors.. Their size and strength are of course second to none.

There are many tales and legends told about elephants both long ago and today in many different languages and among very different cultures. What is so telling about these stories is that they don’t usually go on about their incredible size and strength because that is obvious. What they all eagerly tell is of the great intelligence, formidable memories and complex nature of these gentle giants.

Now I have to be honest and say that when people ask me how clever a particular animal such as a lion for example is I usually say, “a lion is a genius at being an lion”. What I am trying to say by this is that every animal has evolved to perfectly fit its niche and may be very dumb and doing what doesn’t benefit it and very clever at doing what does.

However, when someone asks me about Elephants, I get very excited and my little story about all animals being geniuses goes out the window. I immediately start comparing them to us. Here is why.

Like us elephants are self-awareThis has been proven scientifically through a number of recent studies. In one study an elephant called Happy would touch a white cross painted on her forehead, a test used to test self-awareness in children. She could only see it in the mirror:…

Elephants practice altruism. There is a now famous story of an Indian elephant called Chadrasekhan who was working lifting poles off a truck as it moved along and placing them in holes dug in the ground. When Chandrasekhan came to one hole he refused to put the log in. Eventually the Mahout checked and discovered a dog sleeping in it. Only when the dog was gone would Chandrasekhan put the pole in. This sort of behaviour is typical of elephants.

Elephants really do have long memories. Elephants eat an incredible variety of foods and need to cover large distances to  get it. They need to know where to go at what time of year. They learn this and remember it. They also have complex communication and societies and so need to remember all the different individuals’ voices and smells so as to be socially adept. The result is they have incredibly good memories.

This is also shown in the size and development of their brains which are proportionally 0.08 percent of their body-weight while that of a horse is 0.02 percent of its body weight. This was all figured out be a scientist called Herbert Haug. He also discovered that the brains of elephant and humans are both highly convoluted, which increases the surface area of the brain.

I once had a love hate relationship with an elephant at Fothergill Island in about 1991. Every day I would drive out the front gate and a bull elephant we called Left Hook (he had extra curve to his left tusk) would charge my vehicle. And every day I would rev my engine and bang the door and tell him to sod off and then we would go our separate ways. Every single day this happened without fail. If other vehicles came and went he would ignore them and then go for mine.

One day I went out in a different vehicle, stopped nearby and watched for a while. The wind changed, he caught my scent and of course we went through the whole noisy rigmarole again before I was allowed to leave with my by now completely traumatized tourists.

More recently it has been found that spindle neurons play an important role in the development of intelligent behaviour. Spindle neurons are found in the brains of humans, great apes, dolphins and elephants.

There are many other behaviours exhibited by elephants such as grieving (see my answer to What non-human animals grieve?), playing, mimicking  producing art and using tools, all of which serve to show their flexible and powerful minds.

Elephant painting in thailand.

However, what I found most amazing is their problem-solving ability. To illustrate this, and because I risk happily waffling on forever, I will leave you with one last story:

Working Asian elephants sometimes wear wooden bells. The young elephants will deliberately stuff them with clay so that they can sneak into banana groves without being heard in order to steal as much as possible!

A wild bull elephant “playing” with legendary Zimbabwean game ranger Willie De Beer. The bull could kill him in an instant if it wanted to..

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