Making a Last Stand Counterattack and Chutzpah

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If all else fails, chutzpah is the primate last-ditch effort. Under certain circumstances early hominids could ably defend themselves and probably used unaltered rocks and sticks as weapons. When conditions were in favor of early humans, they were as likely to succeed as are modern baboons and chimpanzees in facing down a predator. Tim White, who has been discovering fossil hominids for 30 years, mused one day while he was examining the fossil Lucy and her relatives, "Although I'm bigger than a chimp, I'm not nearly as strong. I would not want to go one-on-one unarmed and in a locked room with one; he'd certainly kill me before I could kill him. Our hominids look to have been at least as strong as chimps."44

Active defense has a long evolutionary history. Some of the prosimi-ans even do a bang-up job of defending themselves. One, the little African potto, makes violent thrusts at the predator with its bony shoulder blades called a scapular shield. Another African prosimian, the angwantibo, will lift its leg while tucked into a tight ball and thrust its head out to bite its attacker on the nose when in this defensive posture. Even tiny mouse lemurs have bitten people when cornered.

Active defenses aim to inflict serious injury on the predator. This last line of defense, termed "protective aggression," is intended to drive the predator completely away or sufficiently interrupt the predation attempt so the prey can escape.45

Mobbing is a common primate counterattack strategy. It can be described as several or all individuals of a group gathering around giving alarm cries, approaching, and even rushing or hitting a predator. Mobbing usually is chaotic and confrontational. Snake mobbing has been reported in groups of tamarins, langurs, and lemurs. In addition, the primate literature contains information about langurs mobbing a leopard and gibbons mobbing a tiger. (Talk about chutzpah!) As well, tiny marmosets mob small nocturnal wild cats, and capuchin monkeys mob the weasel-like tayra.46 Mobbing was cited in our survey as employed by primates in 14% of the witnessed encounters with predators.

Approximately 8% of the observed primate anti-predator behaviors from our questionnaire respondents were classified as authentic charges or attacks. With their larger size and longer canines, adult male primates in particular will, under certain circumstances, charge and attack raptors, wild cats, wild and domestic dogs, and small carnivores. Mature silver-back gorillas are a good example of the protective male. George Schaller reported that a silverback gorilla and a leopard were both found dead from mutually inflicted wounds.47

There are always extraordinary events that draw incredible acts of bravery from ordinarily cautious animals and people, and defending young is guaranteed to be at the top of the list for turning the meekest female into a tigress. Adult female primates will act aggressively toward predators, particularly in defense of an infant. George Schaller in his book, The Serengeti Lion, comments thus: "The size relation between predator and prey is a critical factor in determining whether an animal will defend its young. If prey outweighs a [carnivore] predator by a ratio of at least 3:1, then it may feel secure enough to attack, if only briefly."48 Schaller was expressing his understanding of antelope, buffalo, and rhinoceros of the Serengeti. Did early hominids abide by this same ratio? If so, they were only comfortable defending their young against very small predators one-third their own size. Or, did an entire group of hominids (including the larger males) join together in protecting infants from predators?

Defense of the young in grazing animals is limited to the mother, a tableau sometimes reflected in the anti-predator strategies of the primate world. For example, most threat and attack behaviors by female baboons involve protection of an infant; a female indri (one of the largest of the lemur species) was observed successfully stopping an attack by a Madagascar harrier hawk on her infant. Sometimes females even take the lead in general defense of the group. A captive ruffed lemur matriarch regularly attacked carnivores that came into the lemur compound at Duke University Primate Center, and a female chimpanzee being rehabilitated into the wild in Mt. Assirik, Senegal, took the lead in charging a leopard that was flushed from cover.49

Even though the most frequently observed defense behavior for the great apes in our survey was alarm calling, wild cats evoked several charges and/or attacks, and mobbing by chimps and gorillas was evenly divided between cat and reptile predators. Gorillas used three entirely unique behaviors against predators—chestbeating, strong body odor, and disruption of sleeping and ranging behavior.50 Chestbeating, accompanied by screams, is used as a warning threat by gorillas, but was only elicited by wild dogs and hyenas; strong body odor seems to be related to fear as much as bravado; and the disruption of ranging and sleeping behaviors by western lowland gorillas when predators were in the vicinity is an example of unpredictable or random movement to mess with the predator's mind and cause confusion.

If we assume that mobbing and charge-attacks were employed as active defense at about the same rate by early hominids as by living primate species, then a little less than one-fourth of the time, predators might have been challenged by our ancestors.

Then there is always the strategy of blustering your way through a disastrous situation. Defensive posture, or threat stances, were calculated in our survey to be used in approximately 5% of witnessed events. Standing bipedally gave our human ancestors a distinct advantage in this arena, since the purpose of the threat stance is to look as big and horrible as possible. Being bipedal also freed the arms to be used in chaotic, wild, and threatening gestures. We are reminded of the tales told by human survivors of lion and bear attacks—sometimes standing your ground, jumping up and down, waving your arms, and yelling is an effective method to shock a predator. "Hey, prey don't act like this!" they say to themselves. Of course, we have only heard the survivors' tales; maybe a certain portion of predators are shocked by outlandish behavior on the part of intended prey, but we never hear about the ones that blew it off and ate the jumping-waving-yelling prey anyway.

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  • carson
    How do african harrier hawks defend themselves?
    8 years ago

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