The social life of mammals
A When it comes to social behaviour, mammals are far more highly developed than other creatures. Some birds may form pairs or even co-operate to hunt, but the complexity of their relationships can hardly compare to those within a group of dolphins, elephants or humans. What makes mammalian social groups different from, say, a flock of starlings or a shoal of fish is that in many cases the individuals recognise each other. Although we may think that elephants look pretty much the same, we can easily tell individuals of our own species apart, and it has become clear through studies that the same is true of other species of mammals. Dolphins have their own signature whistles that act like names, and elephants can recognise and greet other individuals they have known but not seen for many years. This is something that only a few species of birds appear to be able to do.
B Mammals in complex social groups not only recognise each other as individuals, they also remember a lot of information about that individual. Social groups often rely on this memory – such as knowing who is dominant to whom, who is related to whom, and who has done what to whom in the past. They have to learn who to trust, who their friends are and who to watch out for.
C All this remembering goes on in a particular part of the brain called the neocortex. If you compare the size of a mammal’s social group with the size of this part of the brain, you find they are remarkably closely related. This area, though, seems to take a long time to develop fully, and animals in which it is very large take a long time to grow up to adulthood. During this time, the youngster has to learn all the rules of social behaviour in their group and to piece together all the relationships between the group members: knowledge that will be needed to avoid getting into trouble.
D Like all the advanced and specialised features that mammals have, social behaviour has developed because of the one defining characteristic that mammals possess: the production of milk, allowing baby mammals to have a period of childhood in which they can develop their own distinctive and successful characteristics.
2. Examples of what individuals need to know about connections between group members B
3. A reference to human beings sharing a social skill with other mammals A
4. What makes it possible for mammals to spend time growing up D
5. How individual members of a species identify themselves A
6. Where knowledge is located in the individual C
7. A contrast between the social organisation of mammals and of other species A
8. A suggestion concerning a connection between length of childhood and the amount of learning the individual requires C
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