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Are Animals Capable of Extortion?

Updated May 21, 2024
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You might not have to worry about losing your luggage on the way to Bali, but once you get there and go sightseeing, it's another story.

Bali’s ancient temple in Uluwatu is surrounded by monkeys known as long-tailed macaques, which are notorious for grabbing visitors' possessions and holding them for ransom, in the form of food. The macaques have become so adept at thieving that they even seem to know which items are the most valuable, preferring to nab cell phones and other electronics, wallets, and prescription glasses, rather than things people don't mind losing, like hair accessories or empty camera bags.

"These monkeys have become experts at snatching them from absent-minded tourists who didn’t listen to the temple staff’s recommendations to keep all valuables inside zipped handbags firmly tied around their necks and backs," said Jean-Baptiste Leca, an associate professor in psychology at the University of Lethbridge in Canada. Leca, who led a 273-day filmmaking trip to the temple, said the monkeys have also learned to bargain, holding out for better treats in exchange for higher-value possessions.

More about macaques:

  • Macaques have large social groups and a strict hierarchy overseen by a lead male family member.

  • Born with bright pink faces, hands, and feet, macaques' features darken as they grow older.

  • Macaques constitute the most widespread primate genus after humans, ranging all across Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can animals really engage in extortion?

Yes, certain animal behaviors can be interpreted as a form of extortion. For example, primates such as chimpanzees have been observed exchanging food for social favors or support in conflicts, which resembles a quid pro quo that is akin to extortion. These actions are driven by complex social structures and individual strategies for survival and dominance.

What is an example of extortion-like behavior in the animal kingdom?

In the animal kingdom, a classic example of extortion-like behavior is found in the symbiotic relationship between cleaner fish and their 'clients.' Cleaner fish eat parasites off larger fish, and in some cases, they may cheat by biting the client. This can be seen as a form of extortion, where the cleaner fish demands more 'payment' (in the form of edible mucus) for their services.

How do scientists determine if an animal's behavior is akin to extortion?

Scientists study animal behavior patterns and social interactions to determine if certain actions resemble extortion. They observe whether individuals withhold benefits or inflict costs on others to gain a desired outcome. This involves meticulous field studies and experiments to understand the motivations and consequences of these interactions within the context of the species' social structure.

Is extortion behavior in animals considered a sign of intelligence?

Extortion behavior in animals can be indicative of advanced cognitive abilities, as it often requires an understanding of social dynamics, future planning, and the ability to manipulate situations to one's advantage. Such complex behaviors are typically observed in species with higher levels of social organization and cognitive function, like primates and cetaceans.

Does extortion in animals have any evolutionary advantages?

Extortion-like behaviors in animals can confer evolutionary advantages by ensuring access to resources or services that are critical for survival and reproduction. By leveraging power or valuable assets, individuals can secure better mating opportunities, food, or protection, which can enhance their fitness and the likelihood of passing on their genes to the next generation.

Are there any negative consequences for animals that engage in extortion?

Animals that engage in extortion may face negative consequences if their actions lead to social discord or retaliation. In tightly knit social groups, such behavior can damage relationships and trust, potentially resulting in a loss of allies or support. Over time, this can decrease an individual's standing within the group and negatively impact its survival and reproductive success.

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