The Individuality of Animals

Have you seen March of the Penguins? It’s a documentary about emperor penguins in Antarctica that made a big splash (har, har) a few years ago. The penguins “nest” far from the sea (they don’t actually make nests) to avoid predators, but this means they’re far from their food source. Since getting to food requires a loooooong walk, the males incubate the eggs while the females leave for several months to feed. Then the females return, and the males get a turn to walk to the ocean and fish.

The whole thing is quite amazing, but one thing that really struck me is that, among all these thousands of penguins, the parents are able to recognize one another and their chicks with no problem. How? The males are generally a bit bigger than the females, but their markings are the same. They sound the same. They move the same. To me, emperor penguins look pretty much identical.

Recently, this video came across my Fb feed. ‘Cause, you know, I’m a bird-watcher, so delightfully geeky stuff like this tends to come my way.

If you’re like me, you were struck by the very clear differences among these blue jays (which are, by the way, one of my very favorite North American species). Once the video-maker begins to point them out — myriad differences in shades of blue, eye shape, black lines around the eyes, etc. — they’re obvious. But until she begins, they aren’t. Until watching this video, I would’ve thought blue jays were largely indistinguishable from one another.

It makes me wonder whether any animal species is really as homogeneous as I feel emperor penguins are. Probably not. Perhaps the perception of homogeneity is a symptom of outsiderness: when you’re looking what is other to you, you don’t notice the differences that the other easily sees in its own kind.

If that’s the case, I’d like to lose my outsiderness more often.