People are animals.
Or, maybe it's just that they act like them. At the University of Utah's Science at Breakfast lecture Wednesday, associate mathematics (and adjunct biology) professor Mark Lewis detailed his study of wolves, drawing a parallel between certain aspects of their behavior and human behavior."A lot of animals are territorial," Lewis said in a press release. "Humans are territorial."
Wolves, he said, tend to live within tightly defined boundaries, much like human neighborhood communities. Wolves mark their territorial boundaries through "scent marking": urinating at distinct, regular intervals along the boundary lines.
Scent marks are a primary means of communication among wolves. Lewis said "a wolf uses its nose like we use our eyes."
Through scent marks, a wolf can create and identify territorial boundaries but also tell the difference between the scent of its own pack and that of a foreign pack. Scent marks can also indicate if the individual that made the mark is reproductively fertile.
Wolves tend to remain in a 100-mile territory, so establishing stable boundaries takes time. But after the lines are formed, the wolves are careful not to cross them. The 6- to 10-foot "buffer zones" that separate them from other packs' territories are dangerous places, places that leave wolves vulnerable to attack.
"Wolves from different packs are not good neighbors," Lewis said. "They avoid confrontation between packs. Of those who cross into the buffer zones, over 50 percent die or suffer severe injuries from attacks by rival wolves."
But wolves are not the only species that have these characteristics. "Nations have had well-defined and famous buffer zones," Lewis said, such as the Berlin Wall and the Great Wall of China. Human buffer zones serve much the same purpose - to separate and define groups of people and to protect them from enemy attack.
Also, wolves are not the only species to "scent mark," Lewis said, as pictures of gang graffiti flashed up on a projection screen.
Lewis said one of his colleagues had done similar studies about territoriality in human groups (like gangs) and found that gang members take great pains to mark their territory. In many ways, the graffiti serves as a scent mark: Among other factors, its purpose is to identify the group, to show its area of control and to protect it against invasion by rival group members.
Lewis' interest in wolf territoriality began in 1991 while he was doing post-doctoral work at the University of Washington. His research took place mostly in northern Minnesota between Lake Superior and the Canadian border, an area he called "the wolf capital of the world."
Utilizing mathematical models and radio-tracking mechanisms, Lewis developed his own model examining wolf behavior - their movement, the rates at which they mark their territory, and the way they interact with their prey.
"It's a challenge. It's a daunting task," Lewis said in a press release. "What we've tried to do is figure out the rules that are significant in modeling. The key is finding out which factors are crucial for the formation and maintenance of territories and which are less important. Mathematics can be used to do this."
Lewis said his research is ongoing and that there is still a lot of work to do.
"Right now, I just want to understand how animals actually build their territories and interact, the behavior between individuals. But our goal is to build better and better models and eventually make predictions about where they're going to go. This is kind of the first step in that direction."