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Humans may be manipulative, but some animals use blackmail to get what they want

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Feb 7, 2021, 11:28 AM EST

Some animals have been found to be capable of blackmail to get others in the family to help out with rearing their young, even if those individuals aren’t thrilled about babysitting.

Almost like someone who threatens to put questionable photos of you on the internet if you don’t do what they want, there are animals devious enough to make relatives believe that they will threaten their own survival or reproductive success—and that of the species—if those pesky relatives don’t watch the kids. The point of this blackmail to get as many copies of your DNA into the gene pool as possible. More offspring mean a better chance of the species succeeding.

Threaten that, and even the most reluctant family members might pitch in because their own survival depends on the survival of those offspring.

“You need leverage (some of your own Darwinian fitness that you can put deliberately at risk), opportunity (the ability to force control over your own Darwinian fitness onto someone else), a targeted risk (so that the family member you’re blackmailing has the ability to defuse the risk!), and a meaningful benefit (by forcing them to help, you gain a higher Darwinian fitness overall),” Patrick Kennedy, who led a study recently published in The American Naturalist, told SYFY WIRE.

Blackmail among animals isn’t quite as intentionally vengeful as that ex-friend of yours from college swearing to post drunk pics to Facebook unless you let them put you down as a reference for a job interview. Critters that blackmail are usually just doing everything they need to do in order for themselves and their genes survive. Even without intending to pull a blackmail stunt, they still get results from desperate behavior. Sometimes, they are willing to risk their own lives and even those of their offspring for the sake of keeping thier genes going, and that is when relatives are forced to intervene.

Exactly which factors influence the evolution of blackmailing behavior are still being investigated. Whether or not a species blackmails might depend on how it is influenced by factors in the environment, such as food availability or the risk of turning into food. Those individuals that survive will keep behaving in a way that benefits themselves, their offspring and their relatives. Whatever saves the species is going to be passed on.

Credit: Tim Graham/Getty Images

 

One possibility is that animals might have already evolved to help out more only when their family members are at risk. Once this ‘risk-sensitive’ helping has evolved, it may be easier to end up at blackmail, since all it takes is for a blackmailer to deliberately generate the risk by itself and its family will already have evolved the only appropriate response.

The theory of inclusive fitness may explain why there are creatures who are willing to go to the edge of sabotaging themselves just to get others in the pack, flock or colony to help them handle the new litter that was born or the eggs that just hatched. Inclusive fitness translates to an animal bent on getting as much of its DNA out there as possible, whether through breeding or helping out with rearing the young of its relatives. It is going to have no choice but to babysit if the parents or babies behave in a way that appears to signal a threat to the survival of those genes. Kennedy finds this theory especially useful when it comes to studying animals that blackmail.

“Inclusive fitness theory is very useful for biologists, since we can ask: “if this organism were consciously planning how best to increase its inclusive fitness, what would it do?” he said. “This doesn’t mean that the animal is consciously aware of anything of the sort, but it allows biologists to make solid predictions about the kinds of behaviours we expect to see when natural selection has been at work.”

Say a female wasp lays so many eggs that she is nearly depleted. If she doesn't make it, that means she may not be around to provide for her young when they hatch or to breed future generations. The others will rush to keep their queen alive if they notice this going on. No queen, and the colony could either die out or be invaded by another queen eager to rule, along with all her minions. Besides some wasp species, other animals that do this include certain beetles, birds and even mammals such as the dwarf mongoose (top).

There are even more extreme examples of animal blackmail than loss of energy pushing the main spreader of genes to the brink of death. Is it possible that baby birds scream incessantly not just because they are begging their parents for a fat, juicy worm, but because they are actually threatening to reveal the nest to predators of they don’t get that worm? This has left many scientists skeptical, including Kennedy. He believes that blackmail needs to be credible on some level. If the babies end up inviting predators to the nest because they aren’t getting enough food, aren’t they risking an attack on their parents?

“Biologists should be alert to the possibility of hidden threats of self-sabotage between animals, and we should always look for the source of credible commitment,” he said. “The sorts of places worth looking would be in the nests of cooperatively breeding birds and the tense associations of foundress females in simple eusocial wasps.”

Humans could have possibly evolved the ability to blackmail for the same reason, though how it can extend to things such as what gets posted on the internet is an entirely different thing. Size matters in the human brain. Our brains may have gotten so big because homo sapiens developed deviousness that was above and beyond a tactic for survival.

Next time someone threatens you with internet infamy so they can achieve their own ends, you know what to tell them.