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Boring?

<< Cephalopod Articles | By , Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of Lethbridge

Heretical as it sounds from a fanatical animal watcher, the process of keeping an eye on your one or several animals can be boring. It can be other things than that—Jane Goodall's tales of months before she really saw her chimpanzees bring to mind the adjective frustrating. The lack of control of the animals during observation suggests infuriating—please, I wanted to know what a particular display means and I've seen one instance in a week! is an example. And of course there's puzzling; why did that animal do that behaviour, and why not when he was supposed to? But back to the keynote adjective here, boring.

Films show life-and-death situations, sex and fights and imminent danger. Our lives aren't like that, if you think of it much of our daily lives is driving to the office and making dinner and doing the clothes wash. So why should animals be different? They aren't, it's just that the documentary makers want to fascinate us so they crowd in the dazzle. In truth, life is mostly routine for them too. Schaller did a long round-the-clock watch on his lions and reported that they slept half the time and rested a quarter. My octopuses similarly spent much of the daytime resting, between short (though fascinating) bouts of hunting and eating. Herbivores spend hours and hours eating, there can only be so much variety in a cow's tearing grass off the field or for that matter sitting and re-chewing it. That means much of the time we got to watch our animals doing little, resting or sleeping. There isn't much to report about a sleeping octopus. It's the same colour, the same position, the same lack of action for up to three hours. Cheney and Seyfarth talk about how watching monkeys can be 'unrelieved tedium'. So what's it like, and what to do when it's boring?

One of the sub-categories of boring isn't really. When the situation is unclear and the behaviours are minimalist, a casual observer may see boring when a tuned-in ethologist is fascinated. Subtle gestures of monkeys to a subordinate or a family member may be recruitment or dominance. Little changes in the postures of birds might tell an ornithologist they are intending to do actions that they don't complete. Lots of squid behaviour is subtle, but lack of big flashy overt acts may mean you have time and attention to see the subtle stuff. When the males aren't doing Zebra agonistic contests or pushing their way between others and their chosen consort, are the females also coming over and exerting their choices? Yes, it turns out, but you have to be watching what otherwise seems boring behaviour to catch it.

A second sub-category of boring isn't really if you are tuned in to the long-term situation. The dominant male baboon didn't do anything when a quarrel erupted briefly between a couple of juveniles—why? You know that he did yesterday and the day before, the lack of action today is useful as a contrast. The female squid flashes a come-on Saddle visual signal, but no one answers with a male Stripe. Super Girl has been doing that for three days now. Well... there aren't any mature males in the group. Wait until tomorrow when one invades, or next week when the teenagers grow up. Then the contrast will be fascinating. Or you can be interested in activity rhythms, then inactivity shows you something about the pattern. Mating only occurs in early morning, egg-laying in early afternoon, hatching at night? Can't be confirmed without watching the absences.

A third category of boring observation really is. The whole wolf family is sleeping, the squid school is rocking peaceably back and forth on the wave surge, the eagle's sitting on her eggs still, the lizardfish has been sitting on that same patch of bottom immobile for 30 minutes. That's when the seasoned observer shifts gaze in order to keep from being mesmerized or fall asleep herself. It's easy, mostly. After all, we care about animals or we wouldn't be studying one species. We can always use the justification that "that animal might be important to mine" but we can also just spy on another different piece of the action.

This is particularly easy near the coral reef: at any one time hundreds of living beings are in my field of view when my cephalopod subjects are uninteresting. The gaudy parrotfish are crunching up the coral; greens and blues, flashes of yellow and red stimulate the eye. Sand-coloured flounders lift off, undulate onward and shimmer into the sand again; I can track their position by the protruding eyes. I can even guess their age by the progress the formerly bottom eye has made in its gradual migration around the head to the now-top surface. A surgeonfish comes into heads-up invitation and is swarmed by tiny grooming yellow wrasse. Trumpetfish drift by in the near-vertical posture that's supposed to persuade potential prey that they are just a piece of stick. We spent casual time watching a baby barracuda in the open pond in Hawaii. About two inches, brown-streaked and posed under a leaf, it was clearly conveying 'I'm a stick'. Every so often wham! it darted out to grab some hapless prey and then went back to being a stick.

One of the advantages of being motionless is that everything around begins to see the snorkeler as a floating log and timid animals come out of protective hiding. Feather duster worms ooze out of their tubes and unroll their red-brown fan. Red-lipped black blennies slip their tubular bodies and look-down heads onto the top of rocks. The blue-on-blue dotted juvenile damselfish that looks like a starry night slips up into view. Flattened Percnon crabs come out of the crevices—not always a good idea, one of my squid got one yesterday. The panoply of life unfolds, and the variety is dazzling. I'm doing a count of fish species I've seen along the half-mile stretch of near shore we're working on. So far I'm well over 100 and counting. When nothing wonderful is happening with my species I keep watch and count, I dart for the field guide to fish when I'm back at the house.

So boring isn't really. In my winter life I'm busy, constantly concerned with action and choices and bombarded with information. I worry about students' progress and read and evaluate scientific and undergraduate papers. I listen to the television and worry about the state of the world, weave amongst traffic and search for a parking place, make appointments and committee meetings and palavers in the hallway. That might be why just looking at squid in my summer time seems boring at first; I have to shift gears. But it isn't boring, because when you slow down and really look, then you really see. It's a lesson I learn every year, and alas, forget it each fall and have to re-learn.

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The Cephalopod Page (TCP), © Copyright 1995-2014, was created and is maintained by Dr. James B. Wood, Associate Director of the Waikiki Aquarium which is part of the University of Hawaii. Please see the FAQs page for cephalopod questions, Marine Invertebrates of Bermuda for information on other invertebrates, and MarineBio.org and the Census of Marine Life for general information on marine biology.