The Invisible Halo of Deception
The Animal World
“We see things as we are, not as they are.” Anais Nin
Deception by animals
When Photinus carolinus, aka the synchronous firefly, was discovered in Watoga State Park last year, it was big news. The synchronous fireflies are now famous for their spectacular light show.
So much so that tens of thousands of people visit the few locations in the country where they exist just to see them. It is an unforgettable light show to be sure.
That’s great, you say, but what does this bioluminescent beetle have to do with the topic at hand, deception? A lot, as it turns out.
The mating ritual of the synchronous firefly is based upon the female Photinus carolinus hanging out on the ground. From there she sends flashes unique to her species up to the airborne male. Successful mating occurs when they find each other through these displays of light.
There is another group of fireflies out there that are not so romantically inclined. A female of the Photuris versicolor species mimics the flash patterns of female Photinus carolinus to attract the male of that species for the express purpose of devouring him.
Male readers: This is akin to being picked up in a bar by a woman, who lures you to her home where she cannibalizes you. Think about this the next time a woman flirts with you. She may already have the knives sharpened, and the BBQ grill fired up back at her house.
Female readers: You have to admit that the femme fatale is often the rule in nature regarding mating/dining. This may also explain why females are the more intelligent of the two sexes.
But, the males of the Photuris versicolor practice deception, too. In his case, he mimics the flash patterns of species that his female counterpart wants to eat just so he can get close enough to mate with her.
Apparently, you can’t trust anybody these days!
There are two basic ways that animals deceive others of their own and other species – mimicry and camouflage. But always, the goal is to obtain food, avoid predators or gain advantages in mating.
Many of these physical forms of deception are quite bizarre from a human standpoint. Take the spider-tailed horned viper of western Iran. This venomous snake attracts insectivore birds to a scaly growth on the end of its tail that looks remarkably like a spider.
By lying still with the tail near its head, the snake wiggles the faux spider around temptingly. The bird, always up for a quick snack, goes for the spider. In less than two-tenths of a second, the bird finds itself in the jaws of the viper.
I urge you to visit YouTube and type in Spider-Tailed Horned Viper Eats Bird. Although for some, this may be disturbing, it does exemplify the marvel of nature’s capacity for advantageous adaptations.
Deception also comes with wings, and if there was ever a bird superbly qualified to survive in a harsh environment, it is the fork-tailed drongo of Africa. The drongo calls home an area south of the Sahara.
Considered an insectivore and a kleptoparasite, the drongo occasionally departs from the bug diet. On these occasions, he samples the sweet nectar of flowers and has been observed diving for fish. The drongo is quite versatile.
A kleptoparasite is an animal that steals its food from other animals. And this is where the deception comes in.
The drongo is adept at mimicking the distress calls of other birds and mammals, the cute little meerkats, for example. The drongo strategically emits a distress call when the meerkats have food.
This bird isn’t picky. He’ll “have what they’re having,” be it insects, lizards and even small rodents.
When they all dive into their holes simultaneously, the drongo swoops in to grab the grub. It is estimated that 25 percent of their calories come from thievery through deception.
Researchers are considering that this particular bird may qualify for something called “Theory of Mind.” That is, the drongo may possess the ability to assess her mental state as well as that of others. Something rare, if not non-existent, in the animal kingdom, excluding, of course, you know who – we sapiens.
What about that other animal – Sapiens?
We seem to have no limit to our capacity for deception; it is part and parcel of who we are as an evolved species. Humans have created laws and religious institutions to encourage respect for the concept of truth.
Yet, most of us practice some form of deception every day of our lives.
Imagine for a moment two people texting. Person A, “Hey, I am at the restaurant; where are you?” Person B, “I am on my way.”
In a study that looked at this very thing, Person B was most often found to be at home, their office, or somewhere else rather than en route to the restaurant.
We are, by nature, deceitful with others to one degree or another. This is understandable, but self-deception is a whole new ballgame. This requires lying to yourself and believing it.
And, if you are thinking right now that you could never deceive yourself, well, you’re fooling yourself right now.
Some people continue smoking cigarettes even when they have a diagnosis of lung cancer. It may be assumed that this reaction is due to an attitude of having nothing to lose, so why not continue enjoying the habit.
Yet, in many cases, the smoker has convinced himself that smoking is not harmful, nor did it cause cancer. At this point, the smoker’s belief about the hazards of tobacco matches his behavior. In effect, he has lied to himself so long that he finally believes the lie.
History shows that a lie repeated over and over, however untrue, can morph into a sort of truth. Germany, during the Nazi Regime, is a good example of this. Many Germans who sympathized or were complicit with the Nazi agenda remained faithful to their religious beliefs.
For many, this resulted in cognitive dissonance because they were attempting to find congruity between two conflicting beliefs. Unless they were psychopaths, this dissonance must be rationalized to reconcile two diametrically opposite views of reality.
That is an extreme example of a type of self-deception. But an everyday example that I recently read about has to do with cleaning up after your dog. Not a real big problem here in the mountains, but certainly so in cities with large populations of people and dogs.
Jill is a strong and vocal proponent of always cleaning up your dog’s poop. She prides herself in this and even carries plastic dog poop bags in her pocket. This is as much for the image she has of herself as it is the actual behavior. Jill has, on occasion, confronted those who allow their dogs to do their business on the sidewalk and just mosey on without picking it up.
One fateful morning, Jill and her dog are strolling down the sidewalk when her pooch makes a deposit in that grassy area between the sidewalk and street. She immediately reaches into her pocket for a dog poop bag and realizes they are in another pair of pants.
Embarrassed and uncomfortable, Jill furtively glances around, nobody in sight. She quickly walks her dog to the other side of the street and continues on their way. Anyway, she tells herself, lots of dog walkers never clean up after their dogs. And, the poop wasn’t on the sidewalk itself, etc., etc.
By the time Jill arrives home, she is, once again, in good stead with herself. Unburdened of a tarnished self-image, Jill can now stroll on down to Starbucks and enjoy her grande half-caf double mocha soy latte with espresso swirl and skinny vanilla coffee, guilt-free.
As humans, we frequently deceive others; sometimes we lie to ourselves. We regard the truth to be what we think it is. Even when the evidence says otherwise.
How often do we hear the phrase “Please don’t confuse me with the facts?”