Published online by Cambridge University Press: 29 December 2009
Recently, there has been a spate of reports on eavesdropping in animals, in which individuals act differently, depending on who is watching or listening, and later modify their actions based on what they have seen or heard (Whitfield, 2002). For example, Siamese fighting fish pay close attention when their neighbours fight, and tailor their later interactions with winners and losers accordingly. Furthermore, defeated males prefer to court females who did not witness their humiliation. These impressive social achievements in such humble creatures yield several implications.
One is that, yet again, nonprimates and nonmammals show abilities that will surprise most primatologists, who in their blinkered existence often look for comparison only to humans, and not to fellow vertebrates. We are forced to acknowledge that one can only appreciate where human and nonhuman primates stand in relation to one another by taking a wider view.
A second implication is that nonhuman society is about more than behaviour, interaction, relationship, and social structure (Hinde, 1987). It is also about individuals calibrating their actions in relation to vicarious knowledge of others' behaviour, interactions, and relationships. Thus, by watching B, A learns not just how B acts, but also how B fits-in relative to B's interactants and relations. This is the basis for real society based on social cognition.
The most important implication is that eavesdropping creatures have the potential for culture based on collectivity.