We've long shed the idea that the animal world is a noble one, untainted by the supposed sins of humanity. But some people still cling to the idea that it's an honest one. They're wrong. Animals lie, it seems, all the time. Not as an instinctive defense, but as a sneaky way of getting what they want. Let's examine all the untruths that animals tell, and see what they hope to gain from their deceit.

It takes a surprising amount of mental ability to lie. To do it, a person has to recognize what the situation is, its likely outcomes, how the outcomes of another situation would differ, and what to do to make it look that the false situation is the reality. That involves a lot of understanding, reasoning, and even some empathy, since to lie you have to understand how the false scenario would look from another person's perspective. It's amazing that so many people manage it. For some time, humanity labored under the delusion that animals, though primitive, were noble beasts and that nature reduced everything to a primal state of honesty.


They sure had us fooled. There's a surprising amount of dishonesty in the animal kingdom. Lying isn't just the instinctive way that eye spots on wings or ears might fool predators or raised fur makes a mammal look bigger. Although there is that kind of stuff done. Even in the most supposedly artless and instinctive acts, there is calculation. For example, try that old familiar standby of the animal world - playing dead. Supposedly, this is thoughtless response to an overwhelming threat. It's believed that the fainting response in humans is an example of it. And so it is. In us.

In animals it's that old joke about why you take a slow friend hiking anyplace with aggressive bears. If a bear attacks, you don't need to be faster than the bear. You just need to be faster than your friend. We use it as a joke. Scientists have noticed that beetles use a version of it in everyday life. The scientists, because they are sociopaths, watched beetles with 'play dead' responses getting attacked by spiders. When the beetles were alone, they often did the play-dead response, and it worked fairly well. When they were in company, they broke it out more, and it worked like a charm the vast majority of the times. The beetles knew to play dead and let the spiders run right by them and chomp their less well-equipped friends.


Then again, who expects loyalty from a beetle? They have no friends. What about the cooperative herding animals? Or the large, socially-close troops of creatures who only survive because they all look out for each other? These social, cooperative animals happily stab each other in back for a snack or a chance to mate. In almost all groups of animals, there are some members who, at any given time, are put on watch duty. They are meant to alert the rest of the herd if they see a predator. And they abuse the responsibility mercilessly.

Capuchin monkeys have a pecking order, so the lower-ranked animals have an ax to grind anyway. They're also fighting their way out of a hole, since the bigger tougher members will get the first chance to grab food, which keeps them bigger and tougher. How do these monkeys get the treats they want? When the group has found a rich and tasty source of food, and the big boys are about to eat it, they make false alarm calls. While the rest rush to safety, the small monkeys, knowing there isn't any danger, rush in and grab the food for themselves. Vervet monkeys use their lies to pick off the high-ranking males directly. They just don't call out when they see predators sometimes, hoping that the males will get killed off. When they're watching out for females, however, they start squawking fast, wanting to keep any potential mates alive.

Topi antelopes do the opposite trick when they want to keep their mates close. Topi antelope females will check out a male before they mate, and if they don't like what they see, they wander off. If, however, there's a predator in the area, they'll stay in groups. The males have figured it out, and will make warning snorts if they think the female is losing interest. And not as a last resort. They'll lie about warnings about nine times as much as snorting out a real warning. It doesn't always work, but it does buy them another few chances to mate.


But the most alarming liars are the ones fairly close to humans. Orangutans are notorious cage breakers, always finding ways to escape, at least temporarily. To do it, though, they work the human social hierarchy. Zookeepers, they learn, know exactly what items they're allowed and what behavior is suspicious, and will take action to stop either. Volunteers and patrons, on the other hand, don't have the knowledge or the decisiveness. Orangutans have been discovered unlatching their cages with specially-bent bits of wire or pieces of cardboard. Zookeepers would discover them by chance, and when the story got around, would find that the orangutans were perfectly open about their cage breaking tools around the volunteers at the zoo. They knew that the newbies wouldn't know what to spot, and didn't consider them a threat. Some orangutans were even caught stacking up boxes in order to climb out of their pen. They'd been doing it for a while, but only in front of the patrons, who assumed it was part of the zoo exhibit, and hadn't reported it.

I guess I'm lucky. In my experience, beyond trying to sneak food, animals have been pretty straightforward with me.


Top Image: Charles J Sharp

Beetle Image: Bruce J Marlin

Orangutan Image: T Bachner

Via Animals Behaving Badly and NOLA.