Jul 15, 2022 I Paul Seaburn

Chimps are Digging Wells, Gophers are Farming, Starfish are Organizing Collectives -- This Sounds Like an Animal Uprising

The original "Planet of the Apes" movie is a classic dystopian thriller that should still send chills down the spines of those who believe humankind is on a path to one day – possibly soon -- becoming prey instead of predator of the creatures it shares this planet with. The movie’s sequels decreased in depth, dystopian qualities and box office returns, but humans and animals continued their march towards crossing lines on that predator/prey graph. That day of intersection took a big jump forward recently with news stories that chimpanzees have been observed digging wells, a species of gophers has learned to farm, and starfish are creating crystal-like organized swarms. Is Earth becoming the real Animal Planet? Are these signs of an animal uprising?

“No study has investigated the effects of water availability as an ecological factor – communities studied so far all had relatively stable water availability year-round, with food being the only seasonally changing resource: however, a lack of water might disrupt the structure of female core areas and therefore affect the social behavior of females.”

Hella Péter, PhD student in Biological Anthropology at the University of Kent and lead author of the study, published in the journal Primates, explains in an introduction that she and her team were not expecting to witness chimp well digging in their study of how females impact a chimp colony during stressful water shortage times because they were observing chimps in a rainforest in Uganda. Called the Waibira group, these chimps have been observed for years by researchers but had never been seen digging water wells – an adaptive ability witnessed a very few times in areas with dry climates. In 2015, the Waibira group was joined by a new immigrant young female named Onyofi (ONY), who was observed exhibiting a strange behavior.

“Shortly after her arrival, she was repeatedly seen digging wells in a water hole used by the community during the dry season. She dug small holes with her hand in the sandy-gravel substrate of the water hole, waited for water to filter through, then drank it.”

Onyofi dug her wells despite there being open water nearby, which Péter speculates in a press release may mean she was filtering the water to change its taste or clean out impurities. However, that wasn’t Onyofi’s big shocker. After she finished drinking, several other young Waibira chimpanzees and adult females who had been watching her were observed digging wells and drinking. While no adult males did any digging, they were seen drinking out of all of the wells dug by others. Before you sneer “Typical!”, Péter says “even large dominant males would politely wait for her to finish digging and drinking, and only then go and borrow her well, which is pretty unusual around such a valuable resource.” The study concludes that Onyofi herself learned this behavior from another group, and the team hopes that the younger males she taught the well-digging skill to will eventually teach it to the older males. In the meantime, they are impressed that the Waibira group had no ecological need for more water, yet readily followed a new female as she taught them how to do it. What else can they learn from females?

“Through root cropping and fertilization, southeastern pocket gophers are effectively cultivating a crop of roots that could provide more than 20% of their daily calories.”

Pocket gopher

Next we meet the southeastern pocket gopher (Geomys pinetis), a species of gopher native to Alabama, Georgia, and Florida that is rarely seen because it lives in burrows. In fact, a new study reveals it does more that live in them – it cultivates and trims roots to make them grow, and drops its feces in specific areas to fertilize the soil. These behaviors make the southeastern pocket gopher the first non-human mammal to farm, at least according to a new study published in the journal Current Biology. Study authors Veronica Selden, a former student at the University of Florida, and UF ecologist Jack Putz set up a gopher observation area in Gainesville, Florida, and watched the surprising process using a “borescope” camera like plumbers use to inspect pipes. These pocket gophers chewed on roots in the tunnel – ingesting calories while pruning them to stimulate new growth. While other gopher species stash their feces in remote piles, these G. pinetis spread them around to fertilize the soil for the roots. While they didn’t plant the original seeds, these gophers are acting much like farmers tending to an underground fruit orchard.

"It's absolutely remarkable—these embryos look like beautiful glass beads, and they come to the surface to form this perfect crystal structure. Like a flock of birds that can avoid predators, or fly more smoothly because they can organize in these large structures, perhaps this crystal structure could have some advantages we're not aware of yet."

One of the most challenging, beautiful and sometimes frightening activities for drones is flying in formation and then changing quickly into new ones. While we’re impressed by illuminated drone pictures in the sky, it turns out that starfish may have been doing it for eons – in fact, they can organize to make intricate crystal shapes while in their embryonic state. Nitka Fakhri, an Associate Professor of Physics at MIT, was part of a study, published this week in Nature, that was researching starfish embryos to determine how the cells divide in their earliest stages. A popular species to study because of their transparent cells, the starfish embryos were observed forming shells with tiny hairs or cilia that allow them to spin and propel themselves in water. After watching what looked like a primitive dance, the researchers decided to see what would happen if they greatly increased the population of starfish embryos in the dish. The results, as described in the press release, were astonishing.

"There are thousands of embryos in a dish, and they start forming this crystal structure that can grow very large. We call it a crystal because each embryo is surrounded by six neighboring embryos in a hexagon that is repeated across the entire structure, very similar to the crystal structure in graphene."

The researchers found that the spinning action created whirlpools which drew the embryos close to each other and then locked them together as they spun in opposite directions like tiny gears. Once they became a crystal structure, it stayed in place for days and spontaneous waves bagna to ripple across it. that means “the system has some sort of odd elastic behavior." Fakhri thinks this structure could be modeled and used for a variety of purposes.

Have these adults forgotten how to organize?

"Imagine building a swarm of soft, spinning robots that can interact with each other like these embryos. They could be designed to self-organize to ripple and crawl through the sea to do useful work. These interactions open up a new range of interesting physics to explore."

That sounds like fun, but why are these starfish embryos already doing it? The researchers still don’t know, so they’re looking to see if other aquatic embryos, like sea urchins, exhibit this  strange organizational behavior.

Chimps are digging wells and teaching others to do so under the direction of females. Pocket gophers are growing and cultivating their own food. Starfish are forming tightly organized collectives and even doing the ‘wave’ to celebrate.

Are you worried yet?

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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