Nature confirms itself to be a teacher. Nothing simpler than observing it and imitating it to solve our problems, we have known this for a long time, but today, thanks to a very recent study published in Nature Communications, this assumption seems to be true even in the field of coexistence.
The study carried out in northern Botswana in the Okavango Delta World Heritage Site showed that by painting a pair of eyes on the back of grazing cows the rate of predation by leopards and lions is significantly reduced for the same risk exposure. A trick that many different species use as a defense mechanism against predators which now has been artificially reproduced in Botswana to see how this illusion diverts predators from their intent. Although many different animals adopt this strategy, scientists haven’t yet been able to clarify whether this intends to scare predators, direct them to non-viable parts of the shot to minimize the impact of the attack or whether they are somehow unexpected and therefore intimidating signals.
The study split the cows into three groups and painted the first and the second group with an “X” and “eyes” respectively, and the third group was left unpainted. As a result, the cows with “eyes” were less preyed than those with an “X” and those with an “X” were less preyed than the unpainted cows. This seems to show that is precisely the design of the eyes that has a particular effect, and that it is not the distraction towards a less vital point that is the objective of the painted eyes.
Of course, the authors warn that the method should be tested in the long term, under different seasonal conditions and certainly should be complemented with other measures. Predators are intelligent animals and learn fast, so the diversity of methods and periodic variations are crucial in maintaining the effectiveness of each one.
This is the first study that has shown that eye-spots are an effective obstacle for large predators, which benefits both the non-predated livestock, the livestock keepers and predators themselves. In the end, if livestock predations lower, predators won’t be hunted down for retaliatory purposes, benefiting the survival of the species.
From the communication side, the study is interesting in many areas. The solution is simple, cheap and effective which seems to be based on an important communication message “I saw you, give up!” The same strategy is used by Sundarbans (eastern India and western Bangladesh) to defend themselves from tigers when they walk in the woods. Although its effectiveness hasn’t been tested yet, Sundarbans wear a mask on the back of the neck to warn the predator and reducing the risks o being attacked from behind.
(See video on our library by Last Wilderness Foundation).
Another important aspect that Neil R Jordan, researcher at New South Wales University and Taronga Conservation Society, reports in the article is that the same strategy is effective also effective with humans. Being watched, or having the feeling of being watched, generates behaviour change, for example, eye breeding has decreased the rate of bicycle theft in one case and increased charity donations in a shopping mall. This lends itself well to many reflections that have to do with communication strategies.
When my eye fell on this article, I couldn’t resist and had to read it immediately. Then I wondered what elements made the article so irresistible. First, the subject was funny and was more related to art than science (apparently) and animal psychology. Second, the solution proposed was immediate, simple and easy to implement. It unites the world of science with everyday reality in an unusual way.
This is what it makes the approach valuable. We often don’t know how to communicate coexistence. Sometimes the examples used aren’t relevant or don’t fit the audience such as students who need to have their interest awakened and scientific approaches seem distant things. This article can provide the perfect gimmick to talk about coexistence by making it accessible, stripping it of its difficult character, making it fun and interesting. It is a starting point to encourage reflections on further prevention measures and educational activities while offering a great hook to capture the attention of a difficult audience.
When the message is right, success is assured!