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Behavioural palaeontology

My god....they were BLUE!
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Many animals show apparently innate fears. For example, small prey animals seem "programmed" to take cover at the sight of a hawk, but not of a duck. Rabbits, in my experience, will take cover when a dog appears, but are untroubled by sheep.

Although some of these behaviours may be learned, many have been shown to be inborn, and hence are probably encoded genetically or epigenetically. They also persist, even in populations which are no longer exposed to the original threat.


One of the problems with palaeontology is that we cannot, in general, ascertain details of the outer appearance of extinct species. What colour was T. rex, for example? We have no idea.

Yes, you're ahead of me on this one. If animals fear predators innately, then some residue of this fear should remain even if the predator is extinct. (After all, mice will still fear kestrels, even if all kestrels are exterminated.)


We need to get a bunch of potential prey animals together in a field. We'll choose species which have colour vision. Then, we make a few life-sized T. rices, and paint them different colours - red, blue, violet, black... Each T. rex will be wheeled out into the field (or, better yet, will walk out animatronically).

With luck, we will find that the prey animals will flee fastest in response to a particular colour, and then we will know what colour T. rices actually were.

Similar approaches might be used to determine the calls made by extinct species (another piece of information which is not preserved in the fossils). For instance, serious consideration should be given to the possibility that the wolves from which domestic dogs descended were actually predated by an animal which sounded like a vacuum cleaner.

MaxwellBuchanan, Oct 08 2010

shape or colour? http://www.flickr.c...lickery/5062443119/
[po, Oct 08 2010]

Purple Dinosaur http://www.google.c...f&q=purple+dinosaur
Truly frightening [csea, Oct 09 2010]

Dinosaurs playing hide and seek with children http://en.wikipedia...iki/Creation_Museum
as depicted at the Creation Museum (only in Kentucky) [xenzag, Oct 10 2010]


       afraid of smurfs? unlikely. its more likely to be shapes that cause anxiety.
po, Oct 08 2010

       Yes, you're probably right. But in animals with colour vision, colour might well be significant. Frinstance, a predator in dense undergrowth will be more recognisable by colour than by outline.
MaxwellBuchanan, Oct 08 2010

       Great idea for an experiment, but weren't there very few mammals extant during the reign of dinosaurs? So, how would this innate fear of T.Rex (or whatever) have developed?   

       Now that I think about, I wasn't alive then, either (just missed it) but I'd be afraid of anything that big and scary-looking...   

       Maybe humans were once hunted by creatures with white faces and red bulbous noses, orange hair...I'm getting the creeps just writing about them.
Boomershine, Oct 08 2010

       True, but our distant ancestors were around then. Or at least, we ought to be able to tell what colour sabre-toothed tigers were...
MaxwellBuchanan, Oct 08 2010

       Based on my own experience with this, I can tell you that T-Rexes were plastic, mottled green and yellow-brown.   

       I was groping around in the dark in my brother's log cabin, feeling for the matches and candle that I had seen on my last visit. I struck a match and discovered that he'd set up an inflatable dinosaur on the table. It was looming over me in the flaring light, and the fear was deeply innate. [+]   

       And oddly specific. I knew it for a dino, and knew it was a killer. It also felt like seeing a predator in a cave by torchlight. It really felt like an ancestral memory, but the dino in a torch-lit cave bit could never have happened. Maybe I was conflating cave bears and scuttling through the Jurassic undergrowth. Or just flashing on an old bad movie.   

       (My brother later switched to using a lighter for that candle holder, and he left the lighter leaning against the burning candle once. Just once.)
baconbrain, Oct 08 2010

       // weren't there very few mammals extant during the reign of dinosaurs? //   

       The way I understand it, our mammal-like ancestors pre-dated the dinosaurs. They spent the entire reign of the dinosaurs hiding in the bushes, running and hiding, running and dying, and just generally getting stepped on. They were small and fast-living, and subject to selection pressure, which changed them to pure mammals, then split them into different groups. At the end of the Cretaceous, our direct ancestors were shrew-like, but fiercely adapted and adaptable.   

       The dinos reigned for about twice as long as they have been gone. Since they left, we humans have gotten bigger and much slower in our generations. I venture to say that over ninety percent of our ancestors since they were recognizably mammalian spent their lives hiding from dinosaurs.
baconbrain, Oct 08 2010

       I don't think there is any doubt that we are all innately afraid of large, toothy things. That makes it hard to determine if we have a particular aversion to colors or calls.   

       But, [MB]'s idea wasn't to test humans. It might still work for other prey animals. Anyone got any spare prey animals and some BIG pieces of cardboard?
Boomershine, Oct 08 2010

       Might also want to throw in one painted bright day-glow pink, a color that doesn't appear in nature.   

       If they freak more at the pink one they might just be reacting to the resultantly more easily seen shape, but you'll know that you're not necessarily getting an accurate read of color's effect on fear stimulus and response.   

       Unless they really were day glow pink. And if that did happen to be your finding, I'd keep it quiet if you ever wanted to get another research grant.   

       [+] for the interesting idea.
doctorremulac3, Oct 09 2010

       Hey, [Boomer], maybe we could use some old movie theater cardboard stand-up advertising... Do you think they'd be afraid of Shrek?   

       And, [MB], I will donate my neighbor's back yard for all of those prey animals. Do try to hustle all of them in there before he gets home, eh? Throw in a few of your moles.   

       Bun. [+]
Grogster, Oct 09 2010

       + for the concept. But, purple dinosaur? [link]
csea, Oct 09 2010

       [Grog]//Do you think they'd be afraid of Shrek?//   

       Cardboard cutouts might work for dumber prey animals than me (hmm...I never thought of myself as a prey animal before.)   

       But, a REAL Shrek? I'd shit myself getting under the bed. I can tell the difference between cardboard and *real* green skin.   

       Or did you mean a cardboard Shrek for the sheep? (I got carried away there...)
Boomershine, Oct 09 2010

       I've found from being around prey that you can set them at ease by acting as they do. Many of them are only a few years old so the inate fear of predators seems to be tied mostly to direct dual eye contact.
If you turn your head side-to-side to look (like they do) at them while chawing something other than meat it puts them at ease because you are mimicing their behaviour and they think you are an herbivore.

       If something is looking at you with both eyes and licking its lips...run...or fight.   

       Colour, feathers, scales, or fur matters little.   

       //look (like they do) at them while chawing something other than meat//   

       Loved this...but, how would they know?   

       //If something is looking at you with both eyes and licking its lips...run...or fight.//   

       Something nonhuman, you mean? Then, yeah, brother, I get that!
Boomershine, Oct 09 2010

       in the last 500 years deer have become simultaneously unafraid of human habitations and the proximity of humans but at the same time afraid and effectively cognizant of firearms, it seems very clear that adaptions of this sort are very fluid and thus very unlikely to apply to stimuli that no longer have selective action in the environment. In no case do I believe that animals contain trace fears of extinct threats. Fear is too expensive a thing to waste. Humans being a special case of a sort, very very wasteful.
WcW, Oct 09 2010

       further you could largely discredit this theory by proving that an entirely artificial stimulus could cause an identical response. We cannot determine the color of three meter wide butterflies, no matter how terrifying they are to our test subjects. They must have been GREEN!! (false proof fallacy)
WcW, Oct 09 2010

       //Something nonhuman, you mean? Then, yeah, brother, I get that!//   

       Not from my experience.   

       I recall reading a few years back that some clever-boots person made a styrofoam cut-out of a sort-of T-shaped bird-like shape, and towed it around on a long string behind a radio-controlled model plane.   

       When they towed it with the top of the T forward, it looked like a certain bird pf prey with a trailing tail. When they towed it with the foot of the T forward, it looked like a goose with its neck outstretched. Or at least so the critters on the ground seemed to think.
baconbrain, Oct 09 2010

       Most animals have an innate fear of snakes.   

       The nearest I can think of that might go close to this idea is our natural aversion to eating bright blue food. There are very few bright blue things that are edible, apart from the fruit of two or three fruiting plant species.
infidel, Oct 09 2010

       [2 fries] //Not from my experience.//   

       Something lost in translation here [2 fries], on my end, at least.   

       If something human looks at me with both eyes, licking its (her) lips, maybe I should run, but I doubt that I would...is all I was saying.
Boomershine, Oct 09 2010

       No loss of translation [boomershine].
//licking its (her) lips, maybe I should run//
Yep...hard and fast. <gazes into distance and zones out while remembering past vixens> Oh. it might be a little slice of bliss for a while but, if she's predatory, it's just *never* good news.
If it's a he, then scrap for sure, and if it's the four legged kind, then run right at it. They don't seem to know what to make of that. : ]

       [2 fries]. Indeed. I do see your point. I have a feeling we've grown a bit cynical in our dotage (mine, anyway). I probably would run, no matter gender or how many legs.   

       I live in Montana, btw, where we have grizzly bears and mountain lions. Have you actually tried this 'running right at them' thing?
Boomershine, Oct 09 2010

       Most large predators (particularly the large cats, but also bears and wild boars), if they see you as prey or as a threat, are sort of hard-wired to flee if you run directly at them with confidence.   

       Or was it "kill you"... I can never remember.
MaxwellBuchanan, Oct 09 2010

       //Have you actually tried this 'running right at them' thing?//   

       It's helpful to have a rifle in your hands when you do this, if only for self-confidence.
ldischler, Oct 09 2010

       //Have you actually tried this 'running right at them' thing?//   

       Three times so far,...well four if you count walking at a black bear and clapping loudly.
A moose cow with her calf charged me in a bog and I had no where to run but at her.
A gaurd dog broke it's chain and attacked me in the middle of the night as I was cutting through someone's yard going to a party once. (That one still gives me nightmares, all I saw of the dog was the glint of his eyes coming around the corner. When it bit into my leg I smashed the butt end of my six-pack of beer into the side of its head repeatedly. That's right, I am one of very few people who can say with all honesty that beer saved my life).
The other one was a black angus bull that didn't want to go up a style.

       Somehow I think if a large, aggressive, predator were to encounter this group of annotators, *I* would be the one mostly likely to wind up in the jaws of the beast. You people are great!
Boomershine, Oct 09 2010

       Btw, does anyone know of another website where a conversation starting with behavioural palaeontology might wind up *anything* like this? I mean, are we *alone* out here?
Boomershine, Oct 09 2010

       // are we *alone* out here?//   

       Probably. Most people repond to medication.
MaxwellBuchanan, Oct 09 2010

       //Most people repond to medication//   

       I so desperately want to believe that to be true...
infidel, Oct 09 2010

       I so desperately want to believe you two both *reponded* this way on purpose.
Boomershine, Oct 09 2010

       Getting back on track, mammals all apparently evolved from the therapsid lineage of the synapsids, which rose to terrestrial dominance from about 320MYA to the Permian extinction. They lay low for a long time, as dinosaurs (reptiles, ornithopods, theropods and a handful of others) dominated for about 160 MY until the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction.   

       Mammals took advantage of the rise of angiosperms (flowering plants) while dinosaurs remained reliant upon gymnosperms (conifers and cycads and perhaps gnetales, which are mostly liana species). It is thought that angiosperms flourished because of temperature and atmospheric composition changes.   

       Mammals probably developed some sort of threat recognition "software" to survive as long as they have. This might be the explanation for their instinctive reaction to certain threatening events, such as shadows passing over them, and sudden movement.   

       Somehow, based on observation of existing carnivorous predators, I doubt that any major predator that existed would have been any colour other than that best suited to blending into the background. i.e. Polar bears are white, lions and other big cats are buff/brown/mottled/striped to give them an ambush capability.   

       None of which explains why raptors are not uniformly blue/grey.
infidel, Oct 09 2010

       Nor why sharks are not transparent.
MaxwellBuchanan, Oct 09 2010

       Or maybe some are.
MaxwellBuchanan, Oct 09 2010

       //Getting back on track//   

       [infidel] Whoa there! Easy up on the throttle. You've given me whiplash!
Boomershine, Oct 09 2010

       //Or maybe some are.//   

       [Max] I believe you meant "Or maybe some *is*", didn't you?   

       (just doing a bit of grammar police work here...)
Boomershine, Oct 09 2010

       Select: Obsessive mode > OFF
infidel, Oct 09 2010

       What exactly is the antidote to pot? Does anyone know?
Boomershine, Oct 09 2010

MaxwellBuchanan, Oct 09 2010

       // antidote to pot //   

       Kettle !   

       Oh ... sorry, not that game, then. Antonym, antidote, sooooo easy to get confused ....   

       As you were.
8th of 7, Oct 09 2010

       [MB]//What exactly is the antidote to pot? Does anyone know?//   


       Life is the antidote to pot? Are you sure it's not the other way around?
Boomershine, Oct 09 2010

       Opposites detract.
infidel, Oct 09 2010

       //antidote to pot// Rimonabant, apparently.
mouseposture, Oct 09 2010

       Are you sure that isn't a real word pronounced backwards?
MaxwellBuchanan, Oct 09 2010

       But they employed fairly rudimentary technology, [Ian_T], like clams' eyes in place of CCDs. They only recorded light and dark, rather than any shading that might be used to infer colour/s.
infidel, Oct 10 2010

       Huh. Good point, [Ian].   

       Color vision is fairly recent in our development--since we threw out those low-class New World monkeys, certainly.   

       We would have no instincts about, say, lemon-yellow T-Rexes if all our ancestors ever saw was a pale reddish-brown.
baconbrain, Oct 10 2010

       // [Max] I believe you meant "Or maybe some *is*", didn't you? //   

       No. "Some" is a plural noun, and requires the plural verb "are."   

       [Boomershine], you are welcome to join the ranks of the grammar police, but please try to avoid spurious corrections.
csea, Oct 10 2010

       [csea] I would have thought, by the fact that [Max] hasn't commented on that anno, that everyone understood that I was joking. Stupid joke maybe, but not malicious or pedantic, I hoped. I think I'm on the Most Wanted list of the Grammar Police.   

       I probably deserve a tumbleweed. It was presumptive of me to think that I have the credentials around here to get away with such nonsense. Apologies. I is sorry.
Boomershine, Oct 10 2010

       We have to ask ourself, "Is our children learning?"
infidel, Oct 10 2010

       [Boomershine] Sorry, I didn't get the joke, and was in reactive mode. (Given the idea, probably my reptilian brain?) No harm done.
csea, Oct 10 2010

       Has Tim Rice been around long enough to be a dinosaur?
DenholmRicshaw, Oct 10 2010

       sp. T. Reges
pertinax, Oct 10 2010

       [baconbrain] rabbits are mammals, evolved from the mammal-like reptiles which in turn, evolved from the reptiles an off-shoot of which were the dinosaurs.   

       So, rabbits might just have some innate reaction to the outline of the T-Rex since the rabbits ancestors were just about extant with the dinosaurs.   

       But I fear that your prey animals are likely to have a reaction to the shape and not the colour or at least, it might be hard to differentiate the reaction from each element.   

       I also think that T-Rex was unlikely to be of uniform colour so you'd have to do a lot of testing.   

       Do prey animals see in colour?   

       Lastly, you might need to measure the degree of fear that the rabbit demonstrates in order to hone your palaeontological model.   

       I'm not sure it's likely to work, but I wish it would.
jonthegeologist, Oct 10 2010

       //sp. T. Reges//   

       cptlztn. T. reges
MaxwellBuchanan, Oct 10 2010

       Just ask any "Young Earth Creationist, born again Christian" because they believe that dinosaurs were amongst the animals brought on to Noah's Ark, so the descriptions must have been handed down somewhere. (see link)
xenzag, Oct 10 2010

       Which begs the question as to how they managed to be exterminated and buried deep in hillsides and such without getting a mention in the big book.   

       There certainly seems to be enough hubris written into the description of creation and a few systematic exterminations of anti-christian armies and enemies, to expect that completely destroying somewhere between 500 and 2000 species would get a mention. Particularly so, if the creator then went to the trouble of pressing so many of them like flowers in "fake" sedimentary rock formations, after the rocks had been laid down. That's not to mention ferns and other plants in deeply buried coal beds.   

       I'd be happy to accept christianity if it could be comclusively proven that was what was done.
infidel, Oct 10 2010

       [Infidel] Not sure how many people these days remember _Strata_ the book Terry Pratchet published *before* the first Diskworld one. In it, he invents an entire deist cosmology -- unique, AFIK, and self-consistent, starting with the point you raise.
mouseposture, Oct 10 2010

       I always assumed that mammals evolved from drummers.
MaxwellBuchanan, Oct 10 2010

       Drummers? 1880s travelling salesmen? I don't get it.
baconbrain, Oct 10 2010

       // mammals evolved from drummers //   

       Tautology. Drummers can't evolve, they are an evolutionary dead end. The only reason they exist is that they occupy an environmental niche that no other species is even slightly tempted to try and occupy.
8th of 7, Oct 10 2010

       //By the Cretaceous you couldn’t swing a cat//   

       Of course you couldn't. They weren't invented for another 55 million years, or thereabouts.
infidel, Oct 10 2010

       Drummers are living proof of devolution.
infidel, Oct 10 2010

       // weren't invented for another 55 million years //   

       Being so late to market, we wonder why they ever caught on the way they have.   

       #include <EOSSACR.H>
8th of 7, Oct 10 2010

       I wonder how many deeply innate things there are that scare us, or other creatures.   

       I'm not convinced that the brains of animals are wired up that way. At birth, there are a lot of sensory cues that are simply accepted, imprinted and used to form the heuristical foundation of a general understanding. So a child knows what's warm, and what's familiar, and what's different. Difference is generally considerd to be something to be feared - whether it's snakes, spiders, aliens or foreigners - it's all based on stuff that's counter to what we become used to at an early age.   

       If you took a baby rabbit and reared it along with a hatchling Veloceraptor, they'd probably get along fine - just like if you take any baby creature of type X and rear it alongside another baby creature of type Y.   

       You might get more out of looking into the sensory matrices of non-mammals. I'm not so sure about insects and creatures with more compact processing units - but then we don't know if/whether they feel such emotions as fear - they probably feel stress, as an analogue, but fear? So what you gain in the potential nature over nurture argument, you lose in the ability to determine stimulus/response by watching behavior - i.e. how can you tell whether a mollusc was scared of a Blackbird, or a crab scared of an octopus?
zen_tom, Oct 11 2010

       //I wonder how many deeply innate things there are that scare us//   


       1.Big sharp teeth   

       2.sharp curved claws   

       3.loud noises   

       4.the dark   

       5.steep precipices   


       7.whatever the hell lives under my kid's bed, AND...(wait for it...)
Boomershine, Oct 11 2010

       8. Being asked to sing in public.
MaxwellBuchanan, Oct 11 2010

       "Thank you, ladies and gentleman..<bowing and pointing to him>...Mr [MaxwellBuchanan]!!! Give us a song, [Max]?" <crowd cheers uproariously> "SONG, SONG, SONG!!!""
Boomershine, Oct 11 2010

       [MaxwellBuchanan] is suddenly taken drunk as a result of drinking a bad martini, and is escorted off stage.
MaxwellBuchanan, Oct 11 2010

       "Well, that's fine then, [Max]. We all hope you feel better soon! Let's give another big hand to Mr [MaxwellBuchanan], all the way out here tonight from the Cambridge Rehabilitation Centre!!!" <loud applause and cheering from the crowd muffles the sound of [Max] retching back stage.>
Boomershine, Oct 11 2010

       MB is a wretch?   

       sp: centre (in Cambridge anyway)
po, Oct 11 2010

       Thanks. 'Centre.'
Boomershine, Oct 11 2010

       Actually, I've barely finished habilitation. One step.
MaxwellBuchanan, Oct 11 2010

       sp: retch   

       Usually an intransitive verb. [To undergo] an involuntary spasm of ineffectual vomiting.
infidel, Oct 11 2010

       One of the best halfbakery ideas of all time.
zeno, Oct 11 2010

       //Being asked to sing in public.// Years ago, at a seminar on physiological responses to emotional stress, I recall one speaker described an experiment which required a reliable, reproducible means of inducing anxiety in human subjects. They used public speaking.   

       [MB] //habilitation// You're a Privatdozent? Cool!
mouseposture, Oct 11 2010

       Speaking - no problemo. Singing - I would (just) prefer to have my fingers broken.
MaxwellBuchanan, Oct 11 2010

       //Singing - I would (just) prefer to have my fingers broken.//   

       Aw [Max], everyone says that at first. After the third or fourth busted digit they start singing like birds.
Boomershine, Oct 12 2010

       //sp: retch// Thanks,[po] and [infidel]. I was a bit slow on the uptake there. (Something like that can ruin a good thread.)
Boomershine, Oct 12 2010

       or make it.
po, Oct 12 2010

       This comment added just to be silly.
Voice, Oct 12 2010

       Well, I am going to take it seriously, anyhow.
baconbrain, Oct 12 2010

       I was mortally afraid someone was going to say that. I'm terrified of correctly predicting the future.
infidel, Oct 12 2010

       // in the last 500 years deer have become simultaneously unafraid of human habitations and the proximity of humans but at the same time afraid and effectively cognizant of firearms//   

       Does anyone have proof of this?
Voice, Oct 04 2013

       I know that every deer hunting season the female deer wander down into the suburbs with impunity knowing we don't shoot them then. There is never an antler to be seen.   

       An annual mass migration into cities for a certain period of time would make a fascinating paper.
Voice, Oct 04 2013

       Every year there are fields with hundreds of does on the outskirts of the city. It may be normal pre-winter feeding behaviour that just happens to coincide with hunting season, but it appears that the males do seem to know what time of the year we hunt them.   

       Two somewhat related anecdotes:   

       1. I was watching a hunting black-shouldered kite - a large and fearsome predator - recently. Other birds just a few metres away were not at all bothered by its presence. If it had been a falcon or an eagle there would have been a right kerfuffle.   

       2. One of my geese recently hatched some goslings. Her nest is right next to the pen's fence. On at least three occasions, she hissed and extended her neck just as I was walking past to check the fence. Each time, I got a severe fright, and immediately thought 'Snake!'. So why can't I find any references to geese mimicking snakes?
spidermother, Oct 04 2013

       If this idea were true, I'd be pretty sure the vast majority of ancient predators looked like bicycles.   

       An animal on the side of the road will often let a car drive right past them. I've seen even ignore pedestrians on occasion, and then the same animal will run when a cyclist passes by.
MechE, Oct 04 2013

       That would be in the "fear of accidentally being stepped on" category.
FlyingToaster, Oct 04 2013

       but dogs are color blind
pashute, Aug 17 2014

       Actually, it may be an interesting field of study, although as far as I know, studies have been made on mice that do not show fright of snakes until introduced to the reaction of other mice. (Read it in Temple Gerandin's book)
pashute, Oct 02 2014

       I have a friend who owns a couple of backyard ducks. They freeze with one eye on the sky whenever an airplane goes over.   

       Probably an early life luggage handling incident or something.
normzone, Oct 02 2014

       Or perhaps the ancestral duck was heavily predated by a sort of tubular-bodied hawk.
MaxwellBuchanan, Oct 02 2014

       //heavily predated// Are you talking tens of millions of years there?
pocmloc, Oct 02 2014

       More predatorizated.
MaxwellBuchanan, Oct 02 2014

       //So why can't I find any references to geese mimicking snakes?//   

       Good question. The only cross-species mimicry I can find are related to insects and plants or insects to other insects.   

       // If this idea were true, I'd be pretty sure the vast majority of ancient predators looked like bicycles.//   

       Bicycles freak animals out because they appear to move without moving, like a snake.   

       //couple of backyard ducks. They freeze with one eye on the sky whenever an airplane goes over.//   

       The sky is growling!
Every critter recognizes the sound of thunder.

       Given how much cats are freaked out by cucumbers our cave-man gardens must have really been something to see.   

       Actually Kate Wilhelm, it turns out. I got only two results from Google with "Wilhem".
notexactly, Nov 01 2018

       the dinos with feathers pics came from a Herpetologist, so wash your hands after clicking the link.
not_morrison_rm, Nov 01 2018

       Yes: reptiles can carry salmonella. Wouldn't want to catch that from carelessly tapping a tweet.
notexactly, Nov 02 2018


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