6/12/2004

Penguins

I believe it was the first day of class that someone stated that one of the major differences between humans and animals was the idea of trade, animals can’t do it. However, contrary to the discussion held in class I found an interesting article titled “Pick Up a Penguin” on the BBC world news page.
In this article I discovered that economics is not unique to humans; Adelie penguins on Ross Island at the South Pole were discovered participating in an economic phenomenon. Male penguins go out and collect stones and give them to the female penguins, in return the females provide sexual favors for the males. (So much for the idea that Penguins faithfully mate for life). These rocks and stones are used to make nests and are hard to come by, a limited resource that is necessary for the survival of the female’s eggs. The stones are so valuable sometimes they are even stolen from other penguins, which makes these stones and rocks very valuable and in high demand.

8 comments:

missydipadova said...

This article is an interesting way to learn something new: that penguins are smarter than most people think. It also illustrates the concepts of trade, scarcity, limited resources, and demand. I find it amazing that these penguins do this and it makes me wonder if there are other animals out there who also trade. Maybe monkeys? Monkeys are pretty smart. If anyone knows...post a comment!

Dr. Tufte said...

This is really insightful. There's a ton of economics here.

What the penguins are doing isn't exactly trade (since the exchange of stones for sex is not direct). But it is something close called a reciprocal gift exchange (brown-nosing is an example of this). Prices are harder to quantify in such an arrangement - which explains why there isn't always an exchange, or why females do this repeatedly.

This is also an example of "the tragedy of the commons". Since no penguin owns the stones, they become hard to come by. Males are offering a solution to this problem.

And, I don't completely agree with Dr. Hunter that stones are currency, but they're pretty close. Like currency, they are small and easy to transport, and allow value to be transported. Unlike currency, they are not easily divisible, and seem to have little precautionary value if saved (since the females often settle for far fewer stones than they need).

Regarding Missy's comment, within the last decade chimpanzee males have been shown to hunt smaller monkeys, and then exchange the nutrient-rich meat for the sexual favors of females.

C-Dizzle said...

I knew that Penguins trade rocks but completely forgot in class. I learned this fact by watching an animated movie about a penguin trying to win over a girl penguin he likes with a pebble. The way that the Penguins trade rocks for “favors” is rather funny considering humans are known to do the same thing. However in human society, this type of trading is usually looked down upon. The human males do often trade “Rocks” for marriage though. (Believe me! I’m still paying for the rock that I traded for marriage.) Good article Lizzie!

Dr. Tufte said...

I'm not sure that it is the behavior that is "looked down upon". Explicit and implicit courtship (e.g., marriage and dating) rituals in all human societies involve the exchange of both tangible and intangible stuff (e.g., gifts and affection). What is looked down upon by some is the application of economic principles to those sorts of exchanges. To me, this is just a good way to get students engaged in the subject. But, I do get miffed that it seems to be OK for other social sciences to apply their techniques to things like courtship.

micahnay said...

The article states that the stones that the male penguins are trading for sexual favors a valuable currency in penguin terms, but then later, she says that she doesn’t think that the female penguins perform these sexual acts solely for the stones because it takes hundreds of stones to complete a nest. She thinks that if they were a form of currency, that they would likely take more than just a few stones for each sexual encounter. In my opinion, she contradicts herself in this article. Also, I read somewhere (sorry, I don’t remember where) that only dolphins and humans have sex for pleasure as well as reproduction. Everything else does it because their instincts tell them to do it.

Dr. Tufte said...

I think you're on to something Micah, the exchange here isn't quite like trade.

I still think this holds as reciprocal gift exchange though: gifts do not need to be in proportion to other gifts (although they sometimes are).

I'm also not sure that enjoyment is relevant to the exchange. Humans trade for lots of stuff that is biologically imperative, but not necessarily enjoyable in and of itself (for example, breathing clean air really doesn't offer you anything extra, but bad air is a detraction).

Cedar Girl said...

It is interesting to learn that animals also trade. I would have never thought that to be the case. I guess if there is anything worth trading for, it is sex. Just kidding. This penguin article was a great find. Good on you Lizzie.. It is not uncommon for animals to trade with humans though. For example, if I tell a dog to sit, and it sits, then I give it a doggie biscuit. The dog trades doing what it wants to be doing for sitting and in turn getting a biscuit. The marginal benefit of sitting and receiving a biscuit is greater than the marginal benefit of doing what the dog would rather,(running around, barking, or whatever). Dr. Tufte let me know if I am wrong to say that this is a form of trade.

Falcon said...

This is my first time to read something about "Penguins". There are a couple of things in this article I am interested in. One of them is that the difinition of economics is true of this penguins. In this case, we could say that economics is how penguins make a disicion to make a nest. They produce enough nests to survive. They gather materials for their nests. They produce it for female penguins. I think it is an exact example of economics.