Calls of the wild
by Tim Carvell, FORTUNE Magazine

(FORTUNE Magazine) - When you've phoned in sick, have any of your co-workers ever been thoughtful enough to come over and regurgitate blood into your mouth? If not, then your team doesn't have anything on vampire bats, who'll routinely do just that for their ill comrades. It's one of many behaviors found in the wild that suggest that humans aren't the only creatures that know how to cooperate. And animals do it without the benefit of management consultants.

Biologist Lee Dugatkin of the University of Louisville has written about animal cooperation in the delightfully titled book, Cheating Monkeys and Citizen Bees. He argues that critters act according to a rudimentary cost-benefit analysis: They cooperate when doing so gets them something more than they could get on their own. So lionesses will band together to hunt large prey, like gazelles or giraffes, that they cannot catch on their own, but they'll split off to hunt, say, warthogs, individually.

When animals do choose to cooperate, biologists have found something intriguing, and a bit depressing. In the wild, as in the office park, freeloading is rife, such as the ring-tailed lemur that can't be bothered to help protect its territory. So, many species have developed systems to keep freeloading to a minimum. When impalas, for example, groom one another's necks for ticks, they take turns. The monkeys of the Tai forest in West Africa have a different anti-slacker technique. Researcher Christophe Boesch found that when they hunt a tiny colobus monkey for dinner, they divide the spoils according to how much work each chimp did. In other words, they work on commission. What links the impalas to the chimps - and all animals that want to prevent freeloading - is that they are able to remember who did what. Call it the oversight committee.

But for all the teamwork that goes on in nature, the animal world tends to be governed by an old-fashioned command-and-control structure. Suzanne MacDonald, a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto who volunteers as an animal behaviorist at the Toronto Zoo, describes the social structure among baboons: "If you're on the bottom rung of the dominance ladder," she says, "it pays to be submissive and, frankly, a bit sycophantic, because you're more likely to earn the favor of those higher up the ladder. Eventually this pays off, and you can move up the ladder yourself and gain access to big perks like mating opportunities or first crack at dinner." Sound familiar? As MacDonald notes, "Throw in a really cool car, and that sounds a lot like an executive bonus system." Top of page