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Biology, Learning, Psychology

Do animals give each other gifts?

My cats latest favourite toys are pipe cleaners. They stole them off my desk when I was using them to model cell biology concepts in a video for my bio class and they never gave them back. During my workday it is fairly common for one of them to meow their way through the house and drop a pipe cleaner in the office for me. Are they really bringing me a gift, or is there another message I should be taking away from their actions?

Cat pawing at a pipe cleaner twisted into a circle
Pipe cleaners are amazing cat toys

Before I get back to my cats, let’s look other potential examples of gift giving among animals. The great grey shrike is a bird found in Europe where the males are known to offer food items like rodents, birds, and lizards to the female prior to copulation. It is thought that these “gifts” have the potential to contribute to the overall success of the female in producing and raising chicks (Yosef, 1992 and Stanford, 1995 as cited in Tryjanowski & Hromada, 2005).

Hockings et al (2007) found that chimpanzees living in one area rarely offered wild plants to others. However, the chimpanzees would sometimes raid agricultural areas and steal cultivated plants. The male who stole the food regularly shared the food with other males. This led the researchers to wonder if gifting this food to others was a demonstration of their prowess, ie, a way to demonstrate their daring and draw positive attention to themselves. This corresponds with their observations that the males often appeared nervous when raiding crops so it does seem to be associated with higher risk.

The last example I’m going to look at is in spiders. Apparrently male nursery web spiders often offer an insect wrapped in white silk that the female consumes during copulation. This gift results in higher mating success and increased duration of mating. However, some males, about a third, offer a fake gift of empty insect exoskeletons or plant fragments wrapped in white silk. Although this does improve the odds of mating, mating episodes end sooner (Ghislandi, Albo, Tuni, & Bilde, 2014).

I have heard of other types of gifts among animals but I didn’t find any research with the search terms I was using. Perhaps I’ll find it by next Christmas.

Back to my cats, the pipe cleaners and other toys they play with simulate hunting. It is fairly well documented in feral cat colonies that the mother starts bringing the kittensprey when they are about four weeks old. It starts with dead prey but progresses through live prey that she will use to demonstrate hunting techniques while the kittens watch, and finally the kittens will start trying to hunt these “gifts” themselves (Crowell-Davis, Curtis, & Knowles, 2004). I couldn’t find any scientific evidence at this but many feline behaviour sites suggest that when a cat brings the results of their hunting to a human they more likely to be offering to teach us how to hunt than give us any gifts.

The cat example is quite different from the others I found but it got me thinking, if cats didn’t bring their humans “prey” would we ever look at their taking prey to the kittens as a gift? Since most humans wouldn’t think of that as a great gift I’m guessing not; however, we do give our kids gifts intended to teach them specific skills so is the cat really any different or are we just biased because of how few of us engage in hunting our own food? Perhaps this is an example of how our perceptions unintentionally influence our conclusions. Perhaps the nuptial gifts above are only considered gifts because we have something analogous in human cultures?

So, the next time you’re deciding what to give someone consider whether you have an ulterior motive like demonstrating your prowess, prolonging a relationship, or teaching a skill, or if your gift contains an empty insect exoskeleton.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.

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