The View from Here


Territoriality
May 30, 2009, 10:57 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Territorial battles are one of the basic functions of the primitive vertebrate brain. Animals from fish to Footballers spend a considerable amount of their time aquiring and defending territory (or property). I love watching my frogs do Sumo wrestling; belly to belly wrestling matches to see who gets the choice spots for courting females. Lizards spend a large part of their time doing push-ups and dewlap displays, plus chasing each other from their territorial borderlines. They even engage in actual battle. In Yucatan, I once spent an afternoon watching large Spiny-Tailed iguanas battling each other, like a scene from a ‘60’s dino movie using iguanas as faux thunder lizards.

A Brown Anole showing off to a neighbor

A Brown Anole showing off to a neighbor

I’ve had time to reflect on this behavior, not only as an observer of reptiles, amphibians, and birds in my yard and abroad, but as a participant doing territorial battle with a neighbor. Soon after we moved to this house, our neighbor began complaining loudly about the leaves from our property blowing onto his. It’s true, we have a lot of trees on our place. We like the trees, we like our yard’s natural appearance, and we don’t think we neglect raking. Granted, we don’t rush out with the vacuum cleaner every time a leaf touches down on the grass, but we do mow the lawn weekly with the bagger in the fall, incorporating the leaves and grass mixture into our compost pile. When the final big fall occurs, we’re out there with the rakes. This is not satisfactory to our neighbor, who has nothing else to do but sit and watch the leaves fall, and counts every one from our yard as a personal sin against him. I won’t bore you with the sordid details of our conflict, but we haven’t spoken for years now, after a series of shouting matches, poisoned trees and other vandalism.
Our huffing, cussing and puffing is very reminiscent of lizards doing their push-ups. The difference is that now I know how it feels to want to show my dewlap to its full effect. Rage is a feeling that is hard to ignore. It makes your heart pound. It keeps you up at night. When someone violates your territory, you feel personally violated, as if your land is an extension of your body. When my neighbor violates my property by killing my trees or flattening my tires, I really feel the urge to do battle with him. Nothing would satisfy the reward centers in my hypothalamus more than retaliation in a significant way. My cerebral cortex has kept me from doing so out of a desire to remain on the side of the law and out of jail, but the reasoning centers of my brain can’t keep my heart rate at normal or my brow from developing a deep furrow.
Watching other species in their own battles is a salve that I’ve found. It really puts my dispute in perspective when I watch my frogs puff themselves up with air, then bark at and charge all interlopers. 

Huffing and puffing

Huffing and puffing

 It doesn’t make my own rage go away, but it keeps me from putting too much importance on it. I’m sure that if I let it carry me away, things would escalate rapidly into a shooting war. Now, when I become aware of my voice rising in volume, my face turning red and my chest puffing out, I think of frogs, and suddenly my just cause just doesn’t seem so profound. Perhaps our world leaders should required to take a course or two in animal behavior and evolutionary psychology.
This weekend we put up a six-foot high privacy fence, walling off the offensive neighbor. It was as satisfying as a six-foot high wall of urine marking my territorial boundaries.

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