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Published June 28, 2013, 12:00 AM

Rosmann: Much to be learned from watching animals

Watching a mother cow and her newborn calf bond with each other is always interesting. When a cow vigorously sniffs her baby the first time and the calf lifts its head to smell its mother, they become imprinted and can recognize each other by smell immediately for months thereafter until their bond is no longer necessary after weaning.

By: Mike Rosmann, INFORUM

Watching a mother cow and her newborn calf bond with each other is always interesting. When a cow vigorously sniffs her baby the first time and the calf lifts its head to smell its mother, they become imprinted and can recognize each other by smell immediately for months thereafter until their bond is no longer necessary after weaning.

Human mothers and their babies have the same capacity. After a new mother has smelled her infant one or two times, she can reliably detect her baby from others in blind tests of infant identification. Human babies have an even keener olfactory recognition of their mother.

An occasional problem for some mothers who breastfeed their babies is that their infants reject them when the mothers showered or bathed before feedings. Instead of nursing contently, the babies cried.

The infants did not recognize their mothers because they smelled differently. A couple hours later the mothers smelled familiar again as body odors accumulated.

Like many animal species, human infants identify familiar persons from olfactory cues, especially the smells of the mother’s breath, her chest and armpits. Infants can identify “mom” from her perspiration absorbed from the axilla – armpits – into her clothing.

The axilla secrete hormones, so-called individual odors, somewhat like the pheromones animals secrete from scent glands, except humans do not use individual odors to mark territories. The individual odors are not camouflaged by antiperspirants or deodorants.

Adults also pay more attention than we think we do to the role body odors play in important human interactions and functions. Post-puberty females who live together often synchronize their menstrual periods, relying on subliminal detection of human hormones secreted by the axillary glands.

Like many species, men can almost always detect when women are ovulating from their smell and from behavioral cues as well, even though the men usually cannot indicate the cues they are detecting. Ovulating women present a clearer-than-usual facial complexion, rosy lips and hormone-laced body odor, not otherwise detectible, that signal reproductive fertility.

We can learn from animals about selection of mates too. Females usually have a bigger role than the males in pair bonding in species that form seasonal or permanent unions, like geese. Men and women also choose mates who can help ensure survival and advancement of our species.

Generally, male animals advertise their availability while the mothers-to-be select mates that will contribute to survival of their animal kind. In many species the females choose mates that exhibit the most showy displays (e.g. male turkeys strutting and displaying colorful wattles and tails), or that are the winners of battles for breeding rights (e.g. wolves, deer and bison, to name a few).

Generally, the showiest animals and the winners of the battles for herd leadership are the most fit and virile. When raising purebred cattle, I almost always selected the most masculine bulls for herd sires, as indicated by scrotal circumference and male character.

Masculine bulls generally produced rapid-growing offspring and daughters with high milk-producing capacity and large pelvises for easier birthing. These traits have obvious economic benefits for cattle producers and the cattle.

Humans affirm bonds by frequent touching, hugs and kisses, which is not too different than many animals. Horses nuzzle each other’s necks, cattle lick each other, and chimps cull through each other’s hair to extract ticks, to communicate affiliation to the recipient and because stroking feels good. Humans feel calmer during gentle touching.

Women seeking mates usually select husbands who exhibit physical characteristics and behaviors that will contribute to being good fathers. Research shows most women size up prospects for husbands by watching to see how men nurture them emotionally, how they interact with children, if they are intelligent and if they demonstrate capacity to earn a satisfactory living.

Most women looking for husbands prefer men who compliment them, hold their hand, talk about female interests as well as male interests and reach for the restaurant bill. Women like men who are educated, have good jobs and take care of themselves. Of course, not all women look for these characteristics in a husband.

Generally though, women tend to choose partners who contribute to the capacity of their children to survive, just like other species. Their choices are motivated by the drive for survival of humankind.

Knowledge of the psychology and biology of human and animal species is accumulating by leaps and bounds. I drew from many published scholarly articles, National Geographic articles and broadcasts, and my training and observations for this article.

We are not far removed genetically from most animals, for we had common ancestors several million years ago. Geneticists assert humans share 98 percent of our genetic material with great apes, such as gorillas and bonobos.

The more we can learn from animals, the better off humans are. Animals have developed courtship, reproductive and many other social behaviors that have survival value for humans too.


Rosmann lives on a farm at Harlan, Iowa. He invites readers’ thoughts. Contact him at www.agbehavioralhealth.com.

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