Why Animals Behave The Way They Do

Generally speaking, mammals have 'monochrome' vision - (see things in shades of black and white) - with a few exceptions - and egg laying animals (birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects) see colour - (very often different parts of the spectrum to what we see). Taking into account the exceptions (such as the primates and human beings) - and for the purposes of this subject, I ask you to accept this well tested assumption. Also, that mammals see 'objects' less clearly than birds and ourselves. The compound eyes of insects are another story !It becomes obvious that alarm and warning colours used by mammals will be most effective in black and white markings. Even human beings use black and white (and yellow) markings for curb edges, zebra crossings etc. Thus most of the big cats have black and / or white markings on the back of their ears, the tips of their tails, their legs and feet. Dogs (jackal, wild dogs etc) have white or black tipped tails; so do many of the antelope and other mammals. They also have other black or white body and facial markings.

Egg laying animals, that can see colour, will also use black and white markings to signal to mammals. For instance, the open mouth warning of black mambas and egg-eating snakes, the black and white neck markings on certain cobras and the rinkhals, when they stand up, the black crown of the crowned plover when the head is lowered, looks like the open mouth of a snake or some other animal, the white flashes on the open wings of many birds. The examples are numerous.


Any object held in the light will have a shadow on one side and highlights on the other. Animal 'colouring' or shading is to compensate for this in an attempt to make the animal less visible to other mammals. Hence the darker colours on top and light or white underneath in the normally shaded parts. We can try and imagine what mammals see if we look at black and white TV.While 'wild' mammals normally behave according to natural instinct, many of our domestic mammals have been indoctrinated with a lot of learned behaviour due to their association with people. It is not a good idea to try and interpret wild animal behaviour as we do with domestic animals. At the same time, our domestic animals have retained a lot of deep rooted instincts, while some 'wild' animals, through constant interaction with human sources, have 'learned' certain behavioural traits. Lions and other predators may learn to use vehicles as cover when hunting or approach vehicles for food scraps. Monkeys and baboons are even faster learners. Birds and other creatures are all capable of learned behaviour which is an important part of being able to adapt to changing situations. In 'wild' situations the instinctive behaviour of animals is normally more predictable.When interpreting animal behaviour try and put yourself in their situation. If you were sitting somewhere and suddenly heard a noise you would first look and identify the source. If it looked dangerous your instinct would be to move away from the danger. If you were with a small child or something that could not move away, you would start warning whatever threatened you. As it came closer your warning would increase in intensity until finally you would attack the intruder. Form a picture in your mind of ripples in a pond around you. The furthest ripple would be your ESCAPE circle. Inside that would be your WARNING area up to the point of your ATTACK circle. All animals have the same although the distances change depending on psychological and physical circumstances. Animals will normally respect your right of occupation and expect you to respect their right to an area already occupied and heed their warning signs. Warnings not to approach can be through sound or visual posture often accompanied by colour warnings. It is easier to understand the familiar warnings of domestic animals as examples.Like your cat, when lions or leopards flatten their ears, they are showing you warning spots (black or white) on the back of their ears. When your cat lashes it's tail before pouncing on something, so lions lash their tails indicating with the blacktip an imminent attack. Growls are growls in both cases. The tail tips are indicator spots rather than warning spots. The first thing you are likely to spot indicating a leopard is the white tip of it's tail moving through the vegetation. If it does not want to be spotted for some reason it will conceal the tail tip by its posture. Colour is very often used as a first warning. For example, a Honey Badger will stand with front legs stretched and head held high showing you its black chest as a warning. Warnings are usually intensified by the use of increasing sound.

A Porcupine will first rely on its black and white colouring to be seen. It will then raise its quills, making it bigger. It will then stamp its feet and make a puffing noise. It will then rattle its tail quills and get ready for a reverse attack. A camouflaged cobra or mamba will raise its body as a first warning to show its light belly with added black markings in the cobra. If that doesn't work it will enlarge the warning area by spreading a hood, finally the mamba will open its black mouth wide and a cobra may spit or hiss before attempting to bite an oncoming intruder. One would have to be very foolish not to heed such obvious warnings. Interestingly, cobras, which are often nocturnal, will make a loud, deep hiss as a warning at night if they sense that you can't see them. It pays you to listen well when moving at night. Puff adders have a deep hiss when threatened, given the chance.A mamba will use its black mouth to warn other large mammals. A nesting and camouflaged plover will use its white wing patches to warn an elephant to go round it. Insects will flash their wings to alarm and warn off predators. An elephant will use its outstretched ears to make it look bigger to frighten you off; or may approach slowly with ears out and trunk up to try and hear or smell what you are while trying to identify you with it's poor eyesight. Let it know what you are with a throat rumble or some other gentle sound - NOT banging on the car door ! You would wave your arms at a chicken to chase it away but you would bunch up with arms in and make yourself look small if you wanted to catch it. The same with elephant, they will curl up their trunks and approach with ears folded if they mean to 'get' you. The examples are too numerous to include in a short article.The main thing is to remember that animals, given a chance, will warn you by posture, sound or colour, or a combination of these, if they don't want you to approach. It is up to you to learn the warnings, be alert and move quietly so that you are aware of the messages given to you. If you are driving try not to change your rhythm too suddenly. Sudden silence is used by many species as an alarm signal. Remember that animals don't want to attack you as it is not a good survival tactic, they would rather you listened to them and respected their rights. They expect you to give gentle warning signs as well - smell, sound etc to give them an indication of your whereabouts so they can avoid you. Leave the right signs around your camp site and you will be safe.


Don't mix up warnings with alarm signals. Alarms are often given by high pitched calls, coughs, snorts or whistles, often accompanied by flashing of white undertails etc. These alarms are for the benefit of other animals to alert them to some danger. The white undertails (mainly antelope) are part of a rear pattern on many herd animals. You will be aware of the white ring on the backside of Waterbuck, the stripes on the backside of Impala, Kudu, Bushbuck and Reedbuck white under tails, and so on. All these various patterns are 'imprinting' patterns, learned by the young from birth, and these ensure that animals recognise and follow their own species in panic situations. The black and white facial and body markings are mainly signal, contact and recognition patterns, except where obviously for camouflage.The way animals use these markings in their daily communication provide a basis for very interesting observation. The light contact patches below and behind the ears of Giraffe are obvious from a great distance and there are numerous other examples.Back at home - do you wonder why dogs turn around before lying down? They used to be grassland animals and want to flatten the grass to make a bed. Why do dogs, cattle and other animals get up front legs first ? To look over the grass to see if it is safe. Why other animals go down front legs first? Forest animals who want to lookunder the vegetation to see if it is safe before lying down. You know why your cat lashes its tail before pouncing on something - from the lion example; also why they flatten their ears when angry. Many of these interesting behavioural traits are deeply ingrained instinctive actions from the past.
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