A monk seal named KE18 attacking a younger monk seal.

My last post, Together, We Can Make Miracles Happen, addressed how widespread bullying is and described a recent incident in South Korea where two teenagers went to prison for bullying a classmate.

Unfortunately, bullying isn’t limited to the world of humans. Anyone who ever owned or observed a flock of chickens knows well the horror of the pecking order. When I was in elementary school, my older brother decided to make money by raising fryers. I will confess to trying to rescue the tormented baby at the bottom of the pecking order, watching helplessly as it ran and ran trying to escape the others, who always managed, despite my efforts, to corner it and peck off its feathers. The poor chick died, at which time the one second from the bottom of the pecking order took its place and became the flock’s target. I was relieved when the flock was old enough to become dinner and my brother didn’t replace it. A rapid whack across the neck with a hatchet seemed less cruel than being pecked and bullied to death.

Other species bully, too. Female banded mongooses torture pregnant relatives until these victims are often traumatized enough to self-abort their litters.

Fish living on dying coral reefs bully and drive away smaller fish to keep diminishing resources for themselves.

Goats pick on other goats.

Dolphins bully porpoises, sea turtles, and manta rays.

Bullying exists even among pinnipeds. Hawaiian monk seals are the most endangered marine mammal in the United States, their numbers dropping from 15,000 to around 1,100. They are expected to become extinct in 50 to 100 years. Monk seals spend most of their time at sea, mostly coming ashore to give birth. Fishing nets, humans, and sharks are their biggest threat—except for one group of seals, who had another, more uncommon enemy.

Nine-year-old monk seal KE18 weighs 400 pounds. He’s a troublemaker who lived on the Kure Atoll and liked to bully other monk seals, doing his part to ensure the seals’ extinction happened on schedule. His targets were usually newly-weaned pups and juveniles. Typical bully behavior.

KE18’s bullying was first observed by researchers in 2010. In 2011 he stepped it up to scratching, biting, and holding other seals under water. Even when researchers intervened, KE18 would merely wander down the beach and pick another victim. They estimate he attacked and injured 10 of the 13 pups born at Kure and two additional juveniles. He’s also the suspect in the death of two other pups. Some of those were females who would have reproduced to help keep the seals from disappearing. Scars on KE18 are evidence that he might have been bullied as a pup by older males and is now repeating the behavior.

KE18 pinning a young monk seal. (Photo credit: NOAA)

Researchers decided the time had come to put an end to KE18’s bullying. The best way, they decided, was to euthanize him. But when they arrived at Kure, KE18 had disappeared, a mind reader as well as a bully. He turned up 55 miles away at Midway Atoll. Midway has an airport, making extraction possible, and when a spot opened up at the Waikiki Aquarium, the decision was made to save KE18. He was captured and flown to Honolulu, where he was scheduled to move on to UC Santa Cruz for study, then back to Hawaii. With KE18 out of the picture, perhaps the monk seals on Kure Atoll have a better chance of survival—at least in the short term. Read the full story and learn more.

Bullied animals tormenting succeeding generations is also evident among Nazca boobies, sea-going birds living in the eastern tropical Pacific, nesting on the Galapagos Islands, and on islands off the coasts of South America. Scientists have learned that booby chicks abused by older birds are more likely to grow up to become abusers themselves. “Juvenile birds maltreated by older, non-relatives grow up to become more violent towards other chicks, providing the first evidence from a wild animal that, as in humans, ‘child abuse’ can be socially transmitted down the generations.” (Matt Walker, Global Animal)

A Nazca booby adult attacking a chick. (Photo credit: Jacquelyn Grace)

There are interesting implications in this knowledge. Are young bullies the target of abuse at home, which repeats generation after generation? Scary to think about, but a strong reason to put an end to bullying. And what else might we learn from observing animal bullies? That the smallest, most vulnerable creatures become targets? That seems to carry over to human behavior. That bullying is the result of evolution and is a natural instinct, as espoused by Assistant Professor Adrieeen Nishina of the University of California, Davis?

Humans can’t do much about bullying in the animal world, except where it exists due to human presence, such as coral reefs dying from pollution. But surely, whatever the cause, people can put an end to bullying within their own species. It’s a goal worth pursuing.

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2 responses »

  1. Karen,

    You have again found yet another corner of the animal kingdom (besides humans) where bullies can flourish. Your lifetime of memories and your powers of observation are helping us all. Keep doing the work you are doing.

    Judith Josephson

  2. […] who are lower in the hierarchy are picked on, such as the chickens I described in my post “Animal Bullies.” And bullying reflects the dominant behavior of higher-order animals in the hierarchy, such as […]

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