Do Animals Know What to Do?

Where does drive-reduction theory come in, when animals experience a drive to preserve themselves from burning alive? What happens in a fire? Does the flight reflex inevitably kick in, or do animals react with displacement behaviors? Because if, under those very threatening circumstances, they do not resort to displacement behaviors, wouldn’t that put a rather large hole in the entire concept?

As it turns out, wild animals have a whole array of responses to wildfire. Some run in panic, others move calmly away, some swim along rivers, and others are even attracted toward the devastation. Some species, who have been adapting for eons, act in ways that seem counter-intuitive to humans, unless we take the trouble to understand. Jara Gutiérrez and Francisco Javier de Miguel report:

Some animals […] have advantageous evolutionary olfactory, visual, chemical, or audible fire detection mechanisms. Even in deep torpor, some of them can detect fire or smoke and then display active escape or refuge seeking behaviors [B]ehavioral responses may be detrimental to individuals, as happens with some animals climbing trees or animals not burrowing deep enough…

In other words, they are not just hanging around, dithering indecisively, picking at grass or faking sleep, or doing other displacement behaviors. Of course, not every effort is redemptive. When a creature acts on what could or should have been a solid instinct, its fatal failure is not due to a maladaptive response, but to individual bad luck.

E. V. Komarek, Sr., who seems to have known more about this subject than anyone, learned that some animals do not have an innate fear of fire, but deal with it matter-of-factly. Cotton rats, for example, spread the alarm to their neighbors and efficiently get to work evacuating the young from their nests to safer areas, without regard for the approaching flames. Sometimes they hide in ant mounds. Komarek wrote:

Somehow, mammals have the ability to sense the fire, smoke, and the direction it travels. These animals do not panic and flee ahead of a wind driven fire, but they usually escape along the sides or flanks… My associates and I have observed Virginia deer quietly watching a fire at night while slowly moving away from the flames… Horses, cattle and dogs have been seen warming themselves quite near moving flames.

King vultures will flock to a fire like kids to a free concert, knowing they will reap a bounteous feast of roasted reptiles. But not of cottontail rabbits! In his vast experience, this scientist never found a cottontail rabbit that had been damaged in a fire, including juveniles who normally stayed in the nests. A lot of snakes apparently know exactly what to do:

There are 500,000 or more acres in the Thomasville, Georgia-Tallahassee, Florida hunting lands that are burned over annually. The southern diamondback rattlesnake inhabits these areas. The annual burning does not seem to have reduced the number of such snakes, and I have not seen a rattlesnake killed by fire, and only rarely heard of such an occurrence… I have only found two water moccasins killed by fire on the many acres of marsh I have investigated.

(To be continued)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Challenges posed by fires to wild animals and how to help,”, 2020
Source: “Fire and Animal Behavior,”, 1969
Image by Iforce/Public Domain

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

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Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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