Animal Aesthetics

A male bowerbird's gesso. Photo: L.A. Kelley/Science
A male bowerbird’s gesso. Photo: L.A. Kelley/Science

Who hasn’t marvelled over an intricate spider’s web at one point or another, admiring the beauty of its filigree almost-uniformity? Or wondered how birds know just exactly how to construct a nest that will make efficient use of available materials, withstand the elements, and be able to hold both eggs and then squirmy young?

Still, when it comes to aesthetics, I would venture to say most of us assume that humans stand alone – after all, animals are just running on instinct. Right? And if art appreciation is one of those things that make us uniquely human, then it might also be one of those things that makes us feel separate to and apart from other living beings.

Maybe it has to do with intent. There are many who say that art must exist solely for the purpose of itself – otherwise it’s not art.

Humans appreciate and create art for a variety of reasons – communication of ideas, ritual practice, amusement, commerce.

As far as we can tell, animals create what looks like art mainly for shelter and reproductive purposes – attracting a mate, constructing a safe place to mate. I’m not talking about the painting elephants or the chimp who takes photographs – I’m talking animals doing their own animal work, with their own tools.

The top image, for example, is a gesso, a ‘bower’ nest built by a male bowerbird (Ptilonorhynchidae family, native to Australia/Papua New Guinea) to attract a female. The nests, built of vertical sticks, can be decorated in a variety of ways. I personally find this one pleasing, but a female bowerbird probably has other selection criteria.

Underwater structure, Anami Oshima, Japan. Approx. 6 ft. (2m) in diameter. Photo: Yoji Ookata
Underwater structure, Anami Oshima, Japan. Approx. 6 ft. (2m) in diameter.
Photo: Yoji Ookata

The second image, a nest built by a male puffer fish (Tetraodontidae family) to attract a female, is constructed by the fish beating its fin in the sand. Males often line the inner circle with bits of shell. Females tend to be more drawn in by nests that have the most intricate set of grooves. The pattern in the middle, where eggs are laid, apparently also serves a function of protecting the eggs from currents, while the shell decorations degrade and provide nutrition to the eggs and spawn.

It may be true that  animals are aesthetic only by instinct, but surely there are vast differences between the creations within a population of individuals, with some nests being more pleasing than others.

And what else would we call attention to detail, personal preference and design choices but ‘aesthetics’?

Male puffer fish at work Photo: Yoji Ookata
Male puffer fish at work
Photo: Yoji Ookata

More:

Wired.com articleAnimal-Made ‘Art’ Challenges Human Monopoly on Creativity by Brandon Keim

Spoon & Tamago articleThe Deep Sea Mystery Circle – a love story by Johnny

Communicative and Integrative Biology articleBowerbirds, art and aesthetics by John A. Endler