The centrality of fear in nature

Anyone who’s ever interacted with a wild animal knows how skittish they are compared to any domestic animal. I think of the squirrels on my university’s campus. In general, people leave the squirrel population alone there, so they tend not to be afraid of humans. Although there are still occasional predators, such as cats, dogs, the occasional hawk, etc, so they’re not totally fearless, but their lives seem far more carefree compared to the ones that live everywhere else in my part of the country.

Anyway, Lesley Evans Ogden has an interesting article in Aeon on the role of fear in nature, particularly the fear of predators. Ogden discusses the hostility of naturalists toward wolves in Yellowstone National Park in the early 20th century, and how their eradication led to ecological issues. Without the wolves, the deer and other creatures proliferated, and began to overconsume the vegetation. Introducing the wolves back several decades later led to a rebalanced ecology. Of course if you’re one of the deer, the change was not a good one.

But it turns out that having predators in an environment has major effects on the psychology of the animals in it. Prey who have to worry about predators eat less, have fewer offspring, and their offspring tend to be less robust. In other words, the fear of being eaten is an ongoing stress in their lives. In fact, the effects are similar to PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) in humans.

It seems like a stark reminder that real nature is far from the Disney version many of us grew up on. It also presents a more complicated picture for those who argue that animals shouldn’t be kept captive, but should be allowed to exist in their natural habitats, even with its dangers. This article makes me wonder what those animals would vote for, if they could have and understand the choice.

22 thoughts on “The centrality of fear in nature

      1. I do see some things that might someday be useful, but to Wyrd’s point, it might be a long time before I have any real use for any of them. I thought tables might be something I’d want to use, but then I came across someone else’s post using them, when on my phone, and remembered the issues with that, and that a pretty good portion of my online pen pals come in that way.

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          1. That’s a good way to use tables. And I’ve seen some other posts use them in a similar way, not putting too much information in them.

            In truth, when I really wanted to use tables, I didn’t understand the way most people consume blog posts, which is very casual. Hitting them with too much information, as I’d likely do in the way I originally wanted to use tables, is probably pointless. I’ve come to recognize that the only reason I’m tempted to use them that way is to convey a lot of information in a tight space, which probably means I’m trying to put too much into a single post.

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          2. I’ve had enough issues with the really big tables one finds on some Wiki pages that I’ve never been tempted to overdo it. I do them by hand, anyway, so a large table gets to be a big pain. But small ones are quite helpful for organizing and presenting data, so sometimes I just have to roll up my sleeves and write some HTML.

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  1. Wouldn’t we all love to live in a predator-free world! I’d definitely vote for that. (OTOH, when it comes to nature, I tend to side with the wolves more than the deer, which I see as tasty prey, too. 😀 )

    Thinking about the PTSD animals get from worrying about predators can give one insight into how many women and people of color feel a lot of the time. Always careful, never fully relax, except in the safety of the borrow. (Although even borrows aren’t free from the plow.)

    Not to mention how we’re all feeling under threat these days from COVID. The world is not a safe place.

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    1. Naturalists sort of created a predator free world in Yellowstone. Apparently the place was degrading bad enough to make them realize the predators had a crucial role.

      Good point about women and minorities. Makes me think about how girls tend to do better in all girl schools. And I’ve noticed my black friends tend to be much more conservative in dress and behavior, almost certainly because they have to in order to be judged the same as their white counterparts.

      The article does talk about the value of an animal being prepared for a dangerous world. In many cases, it’s probably worth the stress so they live longer. Still, the idea that nature requires PTSD conditions seems pretty stark.

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      1. “Nature red in tooth and claw.” Evolution is pretty ruthless. 😮

        They’ve made a similar mistake with forest fires thinking a Good Forest is a safe forest with no fires. But fires turn out to be part of the long-term life cycle of forests.

        That’s the thing about evolved holistic systems (we even see it in neural nets). Mess with one piece and it can perturb the whole.

        You may have seen the plaque some women have hanging in their office: “A woman has to be twice as good as a man in order to considered half as good.” Women and people of color are judged by an entirely different standard than us white guys. That’s a big part of what’s meant by “white privilege.”

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        1. The biggest problem with the forest fires, is we’ve created a situation where the woods are so dense, when fires do happen, they’re going to be much more catastrophic. Coupled with the tendency to build neighborhoods right up against the forests, it’s created a bad situation, one that doesn’t leave a lot of good paths to get out of.

          White male privilege is definitely a thing. Women and people of color are judged by different standards.
          The problem, of course, is that it’s invisible to white males, so the pushback against it is increasingly making them feel like a beleaguered group. I fear it’s why white males are Trump’s last bastion of support.

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          1. Yeah, building in the woods is like how, in Los Angeles, so many build on hillsides. “But it’s so pretty!” they say… and after the mudslide or forest fire destroys their house, they use the insurance to rebuild in the same place. Good old human stupidity.

            Speaking of which:

            “The problem, of course, is that it’s invisible to white males,”

            Only by being willfully blind, which gets us back to Stupid Human Tricks.

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  2. It could be that for humans a fear of possible unseen predator behind some bush, or whatever else, became the underlying cause of all beliefs in the supernatural. You still could see the fear of God in many religions.

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    1. The hyperactive agency detection hypothesis. Better to err on the rustle in the bushes being a predator than just the wind. It may well be behind a lot of religion. (Of course, a believer would say we have that feeling because there is something there to have it about.)

      I have to admit it never occurred to me to think of gods as predators. But if you think about the angry and bloodthirsty gods of ancient societies, the kind that demanded sacrifices, it makes a kind of sense.

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  3. I’d rather face a 10% chance of being killed and eaten by a wolf, than a 15% chance of dying of starvation, in a given time period. Why the unequal chances? Because “Prey who have to worry about predators … have fewer offspring.” Do the math (and don’t assume an infinitely growing supply of plants). Although, maybe that statistic about offspring was based on a time before the prey species became overpopulated.

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    1. If I recall correctly, the thing about prey in danger having fewer offspring was observed in controlled populations. Apparently, just making the prey think there might be predators around, such as playing the sounds of some from speakers, was enough to drive the changes.

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  4. The fewer offspring with predation doesn’t seem to be true always.

    Smaller litters are associated with opossums living on an island without predation and larger and earlier litters with those on mainland with more predation.

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-new-old-age/201906/what-opossums-can-teach-us-about-why-we-age

    There may be other factors controlling how adaptation with/without predation works. Maybe species requiring more care for young might have smaller litters with predation whereas ones without not much care required might have larger litters. In general, larger litters would seem to make sense. Even humans with high infant mortality tend to have higher birth rates which fall as infant mortality decreases.

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    1. Definitely it’s not an absolute rule. I think the point the article makes is that it’s one of the possible markers of higher psychological stress in animals under the threat of predation. The act of mating takes energy and makes the participants vulnerable. The main thing is that predation, or just the perceived threat of it, has dramatic effects on how animals live, not just in the moments when a predator is near.

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  5. I remember as a young man walking up to a “wild” deer and petting it. This was a deer that had obviously gotten used to humans. It had probably been exploring local parks and neighborhoods for a while. While this was a really pleasant experience for me, I remember also feeling a bit worried about the deer. Having no fear is a good way to get yourself killed.

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    1. It might be a factor of where you were. Animals in parks tend to be more comfortable with humans, often because they get fed that way. We’re always told not to feed the animals. Part of it is for our own safety, but it’s not good for the animals either.

      Many of my cousins, if they woke up to that, would have reached for their rifle, at least during hunting season.

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