Centennial Museum gecko logo

Desert Diary


This page was designed with CSS, and looks best in a CSS-aware browser—which, unfortunately, yours is not. However, the document should still be readable, though not presented in the most sophisticated manner.

We're finding many features that are highly developed in humankind are also present in other animals. One of our abilities is known as transitive inference. Imagine being in a room with some friends when a person unknown to you enters; moreover, the people you know are fawning all over the stranger. If the stranger approaches you, you almost certainly will show deference, for the actions of others tells you that this is perceived as an important person.

In various animals that have a complex social setup, there also is a well developed hierarchy of social importance. In human terms, each animal "knows its place". Transitive inference now has been demonstrated among our Southwestern Pinyon Jays. If one bird ("Billy" for our purposes) observes a known bird ("Bob") deferring to an unknown jay ("Andy"), and if Bob is dominant over Billy, Billy will take the clue and also defer to Andy. This is the case even if Billy has seen other strangers dominating Andy. Obviously, Billy has figured out his place in the social pecking order—low—merely by observation.

pen and ink

Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.