27 May 2007

(109) Blue jays; planning ahead

We have two dogs in our house, a golden retriever named Dusty and an Australian
shepherd-lab mix named Smoke. Dusty is clever enough in her way, but Smoke could
do algebra if she only had an opposable thumb to hold the pencil.

Smoke has an infallible internal clock that alerts her to dinnertime. At 5 p.m.
she goes to her food bowl, puts one paw on the rim and upends it, clattering it
across the kitchen floor in an action that says, "It's time to eat," as clearly
as if she had spoken it.

However, Smoke won't actually eat her food unless Dusty gets her dinner, too. If
for some reason Dusty's food hasn't been delivered, Smoke will wait by her full
dish and announce by spinning the empty dish repeatedly that the dinner ritual
is not complete.

People are always claiming marvelous feats for their dogs, so I'm offering
Smoke's touching concern for her fellow canid as an anecdote, not as evidence
she is a budding doggy altruist. Still, it is curious to note Smoke is willing
to delay her immediate satisfaction on behalf of fellow, unrelated being. Lest
you think she's completely noble, let it also be said she is a picky eater.

We also have a pair of blue jays that visit our backyard feeders. Blue jays are
notoriously bad-tempered and aggressive birds that fiercely defend a large
territory against conspecifics.

As Mark Twain related, from Jim Baker in "Baker's Blue Jay Yarn," "A jay hasn't
got any more principle than a Congressman. A jay will lie, a jay will steal, a
jay will deceive, a jay will betray; and four times out of five, a jay will go
back on his solemnest promise."

Within such a context, blue jays seem unlikely candidates for demonstrating
altruistic behavior. But a recent experiment by David Stephens and colleagues at
the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis has cleverly demonstrated blue jays
can plan ahead and cooperate to benefit themselves and unrelated individuals.

There are plenty of stories of animal cooperation in the wild. Lions and wolves
hunt in groups, for instance. Pods of killer whales will herd fish and marine
mammals cooperatively. Vampire bats sometimes will share a blood meal with an
unrelated fellow bat if the latter has had an unsuccessful night out on the
neck. The bats do this on a tit-for-tat basis -- that is, they only share with
individual bats they are pretty sure will return the favor when they find
themselves in similar straits.

There are even examples of cooperation between species. In "The Parrot's
Lament," Eugene Linden relates an eyewitness account of cooperative fishing
between dolphins and humans in southern Brazil:
"The fishermen will line up in the shallow, murky waters in a bay near the town
of Laguna. Up to ten dolphins will station themselves twenty feet or so farther
out to sea. When the dolphins spot a school of mullet, they will dive and turn
underwater and then reappear on the surface, swimming towards the fishermen.
Just before they get within range of the nets, the dolphins will abruptly stop
and create a surging surface wave that carries the mullet the last few feet
towards the now braced fishermen, who cast their nets and haul in the panicked

Stephens, an associate professor of ecology, evolution and behavior at
Minnesota, told United Press International cooperation in cases where everyone
benefits "is thought to be theoretically uninteresting."

In the lab, Stephens said, "Animals defect very quickly. Our problem is why does
this happen. It is simple to get cooperation when it is in everybody's
short-term interest. There is no temptation to cheat."

Studies on altruism and cooperation are centered around a theoretical conundrum
known as "the iterated prisoner's dilemma." This is a repeated test of
trustworthiness. A single defection can offer a higher immediate reward, but a
more stable outcome is long-term cooperation between two individuals. Numerous
computer simulations of the iterated prisoner's dilemma have shown that the most
"evolutionary stable strategy" is sort of "tit-for-tat with forgiveness." That
is, prisoner A responds as Prisoner B does. But if Prisoner B defects once,
Prisoner A ignores it, and vice versa. Frequent defection means that the other
player has to respond in kind.

The trouble is, in the lab the blue jays did not behave the way the theory said
they should -- largely because of something called "temporal discounting,"
Stephens said.

"What we thought is that we know from other work that animals are very sensitive
to delay, and they really hate a delay. If you give them a choice between a
pathetic food option and good one 10 or 20 seconds later, they will often choose
the worse food payout," he said. "That's what our story is about: the connection
between impulsiveness and altruistic cooperation."

Stephens designed an experiment to motivate the blue jays to focus on the
long-term consequences of their behavior. The birds -- one "stooge" whose
actions were controlled by the experimenters, and one that was free to choose --
were trained to fly back and forth to two perches. Landing on one perch resulted
in a small reward for a bird. Landing on the "cooperation perch" gave a large
reward for the neighbor, but none for the chooser. A clear box, visible to the
birds, accumulated each bird's winning and released them, either right away or
after four rounds of the game.

When the rewards were dispensed immediately, the test bird always defected. But
when the stooge bird cooperated, there was a steady increase in the cooperation
of the "free" bird.

"When the food accumulated in that little box," Stephens said, "that forced them
to think of the long-term benefits."

The issue of forsaking weak, short-term rewards in favor of strong, long-term
ones is an essential problem of environmental policy. Forest, ocean and
atmosphere provide immediate value, but they also have a longer, stronger payout
over generations. Building these long-term values into our global policies is an
essential factor in the protection of the environment.

The blue jay experience is encouraging. It means if we can teach such a
cantankerous blue jay to cooperate, we might be able to learn it ourselves.

Dan Whipple