Wisdom in the Wild

THE ONLY ASPECT of my life that I can trace directly to my maternal grandmother is my recent decision to stop eating groundfish. I have never been particularly close to her, mostly due to geography, and in place of any real relationship what has remained remarkable to me is her age. She is 104 years old.

My elders in general are like figments of the information age: I have knowledge of them, but little experience. This hardly makes me exceptional among recent generations, and yet the consequences of growing up without elders are remarkably unclear in a society where their contributions are often seen as optional.

My grandmother’s short-term memory has failed her, and it is too late to ask how she feels about groundfish; the synaptic link between the two is mine alone. I made the connection in a lecture hall as I listened to a marine biologist describe the planet’s most remote fisheries, which target species such as orange roughy and Patagonian toothfish (marketed as “Chilean sea bass”) on the slopes of underwater mountains. “Irreplaceable fuel is being burned to catch irreplaceable fish to bring to market at a net loss,” he said.

The fuel is irreplaceable, of course, only in the sense that fossil fuels are not replenished in the earth’s crust within meaningful human timelines. The fish he’s referring to, which live near the ocean floor and increasingly end up in the frozen foods aisle, are irreplaceable for much the same reason — the average seamount groundfish is estimated to be one hundred years old.

I have stopped eating groundfish, not because the fishery is unsustainable, which was the biologist’s actual point, but because any one of the fish might be as old as my grandmother. The decision is easy to deride as a most-embarrassing anthropomorphism, I know, but my spouse, at least, offered unhesitating support. “Who knows what wisdom they’ve developed in that time?” she said. And who wants to risk consuming the planet’s store of wisdom?

There may be more to that way of thinking than prima facie absurdism and overweening sensitivity. In 1993, a severe drought struck Tarangire National Park in Tanzania. In a typical wet season, more than two feet of water would have swept the savannah, greening the sepia landscape, but that year less than three inches would fall. The drought was a crisis for the park’s African elephants, with their elephantine appetites for vegetation and water. By the time the rains came again, the Tarangire herd had lost sixteen out of eighty-one calves, a level of juvenile mortality ten times above normal.

The deaths were not evenly distributed. The Tarangire elephants belonged to twenty-one different family groups under the umbrellas of three clans, identified for research purposes as clans A, B, and C. Fully 70 percent of the total calf deaths were sustained by clan B. The fatal distinction seemed to be that clan B had remained within the park boundaries, while clans A and C left the park to seek water farther afield.

Charles Foley, an elephant biologist working in Tarangire, asked the obvious question: Why did clan B fail to leave the park? He found the only convincing answer in the ages of the females — known in the field as matriarchs — that lead the family groups. Elephants can live to be more than sixty years old in the wild, but clan B’s oldest matriarch was barely middle aged, in her early thirties. Only clans A and C had females old enough that they may have remembered the area’s previous drought, which had lasted two years beginning in 1958. “It might thus be possible,” wrote Foley in the cautious language of new discovery, “that clan B remained within the park during the 1993 drought because the sole surviving older female lacked knowledge of areas with forage and water outside the park, while older matriarchs in the other clans were able to lead their groups, and probably other groups within the clan, to such refugia using their previous experience to guide them.” Unstated but implied in Foley’s research is the fact that the elephants’ ability to survive depends on an unbroken thread of learning reaching deeply back in time. Severe drought tends to strike Tarangire only every fifty years or so. To maintain a mental map of those lifesaving water holes over centuries demands the continuous presence not merely of adult elephants, but of elderly ones.

There is a more familiar way to think about older animals, and it is captured in a quotation from that early twentieth-century chronicler of legendary beasts, Ernest Thompson Seton: “No wild animal dies of old age.” Ask yourself what predators eat, and there is a textbook answer at hand: they eat the young, the sick, and the old. A role for aged animals, then, but surely not a fortunate one.

Seton himself saw more nuance than that. Among his less frequently cited observations is that, once an animal has survived perilous youth, “he is likely to outlive his prime.” Wild Animals I Have Known, the book that made Seton famous, is first and foremost a collection of stories about aged animals. There stands Old Lobo, the leader of a wolf pack in the Corrumpa Valley of New Mexico — a place where no wolves at all live today — and an animal of such world-wise experience and force of personality that he gathers Seton’s poisoned baits (so carefully prepared to prevent any telltale human scent that the author had cut the meat with a bone knife while wearing gloves “steeped in the hot blood of the heifer”), piles them up, and, if I am reading the euphemisms correctly, shits on them. Another of Seton’s characters is Silverspot the crow, not with a “delicate blue iris,” but the “dark brown eye of the old stager.” Seton recalls a saying of his times: “Wise as an old crow.”

How old can a crow be, anyway? Does it come as some surprise that they frequently manage thirty or forty years, and that the age of eighty is not unheard of? Albatrosses and parrots have also been known to live into their eighties, certain salamanders may live more than a century, and queen ants can manage nearly thirty years. House sparrows, ubiquitous in cities and towns across North America and Europe, may weather more than twenty years of life, and gray squirrels can outlive many dogs. For the most part, though, these numbers are conjectural, based on limited samples or zookeepers’ records. Bob Paine, who for more than forty years has studied the ecology of Tatoosh Island off the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, has observed one Urticina crassicornis, a common shoreline anemone, since his first trip to the island in 1968. “It was old then, probably,” he tells me, “and is older now.”

If we know little about the ages of things, then the record is even more scant when it comes to the ornate variety of aging in the wild. We might see a familiar portrait in an old baboon, his fur dull and teeth worn as he appraises the passing young females with watery eyes, his most audible contribution to the daily dramas of the troop little more than the occasional fart. In other cases, though, the advance of years is enviably invisible to human eyes. Many birds remain just as iridescent, just as marvelously preened, at the farthest reaches of senescence as when they were newly fledged. Old spinner dolphins appear perfectly capable of performing that species’ eponymous acrobatics. One day they simply die.

Perhaps most poignantly, it is often in older age that humans and animals reach out to one another across species. One can suggest motivations ranging from loneliness and boredom to the self-interest of animals that see nothing left to lose, and some security to gain, in living alongside a species that their predators avoid. Whatever the reasons, the bond can go far beyond the stereotype of old folks tossing bread crumbs to pigeons in the park. Near a pond in Blockley, England, stands a tombstone that reads, “In Memory of the Old Fish.” It was set there in the name of William Keyte, a retired wheelwright who developed a relationship with one particular trout, which would rise whenever its fellow elder approached the shore. At times the fish would eat from Keyte’s hand; at others, presumably, the pair would simply pass some time regarding one another across the infinite divide between species. The trout died on April 20, 1855, aged an estimated twenty years. According to a British writer who visited the site in modern times, “It is said that it was murdered.”

The much more enduring tradition is simple indifference. If we reject and dread our own advance of years and buy Harley-Davidson motorcycles in rebellion, when it comes to old age in the natural world we manage a striking lack of awareness. In 2009, Anne Innis Dagg published The Social Behavior of Older Animals, one of the rare academic titles dedicated to aged beasts. In it she admits that her own early fieldwork with camels and giraffes reported almost nothing about the elders of the species, an omission that she found to be widespread in scientific papers.

Ignorance tends to have consequences, and here we might revisit the pachyderms, this time in apartheid-era South Africa. In the early 1980s, the elephant population was swelling in Kruger National Park, and wildlife managers decided to dart numbers of adult elephants from the air and then shoot them to death on the ground, often in plain view of the juveniles. The youngsters were then rounded up and sent to other parks and reserves, with about forty ending up in Pilanesberg National Park, several hundred miles to the southwest. It must have seemed like a logical if gruesome act of conservation: reduce overpopulation in one place and spread the wealth of the species to others.

More than a decade later, field biologists in Pilanesberg noted what they termed a “novel situation” emerging. White rhinoceros, a species that had been bred back from the brink of extinction, appeared to be suffering, for the first time on record, high mortality from elephant attacks. Between 1992 and 1998, elephants were suspected in the deaths of forty-nine rhinos — a massacre.

The culprits turned out to be the orphaned young males from Kruger. The empathetic conclusion to leap to would be that the elephants’ berserk behavior was rooted in the trauma they’d endured as calves, and in fact there is no way to rule out that possibility. As in Tarangire, however, the investigation turned in time to a question of generations.

As they approach maturity, male elephants enter a rutting condition known as musth, during which testosterone floods their systems so fiercely that even their posture is changed. The adolescent males in Pilanesberg were entering musth too young and staying in it too long; one suspected rhino killer was finally culled after remaining in musth for as many as five months, a length of time that would be unusual even for a male twice its age. Under more natural circumstances — that is, in an elephant herd not composed of transplanted and possibly traumatized orphans — the adolescent musth periods are cut short by apparently withering encounters with larger, older males. After standing down to a dominant male, the rush of hormones stops, in some cases in a matter of minutes.

As a test, six older male elephants were introduced to Pilanesberg. The killing of rhinoceroses ceased, and the outbreak of elephantine violence was blamed on “a lack of adult supervision,” but more particularly, a lack of elders. Elephants are one of the few species in which the importance of older animals is coming to be acknowledged. Without them, the Pilanesberg orphans acted in a way so far outside of pachyderm norms that it seems fair to label it insane.

Evidence of the preferential hunting of the oldest animals — easy to find, meaty, often less dangerous than in their prime — reaches back at least to the Middle Stone Age, and today harvesting by humans is the leading cause of adult mortality in an increasing number of species. In the case of the African elephants, the “behemoths” — matriarchs and patriarchs in the sixth and seventh decades — have already been decimated, and the remaining elders remain the choice of poachers seeking larger ivory tusks.

But in many ways, our greatest experiment in mining the rock of ages is currently under way in the sea. We think of the oceans as mysterious, and they are: so fluid in their connectivity that they make a ready-made metaphor for consciousness. We think of them as ancient, and the oceans are that, too. Long life is a survival strategy in the comfortless deeps, where the continuation of the species often hinges on a simple capacity to endure. In many cases, though, the wondrous breadth of the life aquatic seems as arbitrary as our own. Bowhead whales still wash ashore with two-hundred-year-old harpoon points wedged in their bones, while in 2007 researchers from Bangor University in Wales dredged up a quahog clam estimated by its shell rings to be just over four centuries old, and doomed to be dissected — oh irony! — for what it might teach us about how to slow human aging. Do these maritime elders gather sagacity, each within the limited operating system that it has? Do they perfect existence over their staggering life spans? No one knows. We don’t know the wisdom of a centenarian groundfish any more than we do the consequences of bringing an end to the age of old age, in our own societies or the wider world.

Occasionally, there are glimpses. In the first years of the 1990s, the fisheries scientist George Rose headed for the Grand Banks of Newfoundland to attempt to record, for the first time, the migration routes of cod in the northwest Atlantic. The knowledge was suddenly urgent — the fishery, long a symbol of the baroque abundance of which nature is capable, appeared to be failing. Rose predicted the likely migratory path based on water temperatures and sea bottom topography, and echo sounders proved his forecast was largely correct. The fish were there. But he also made an observation he had not expected.

Cod are groundfish, and though they don’t live long enough to be contemporaries of my grandmother, they still can reach about twenty-five years of age. It was these big, old fish that seized Rose’s attention. He could see them on the echo sounder readouts, individual black smudges at the head of every school. Scouts, his team called them. In most of the schools, there were only a few left.

Rose came ashore with many questions. What signposts did the old cod follow through the vast, undifferentiated space of the sea? How did they determine where and when the schools would spawn? Was he really watching fish that had the wisdom and memory of years, that were keepers of knowledge passed down through generations?

Answers would not be forthcoming. In 1993, the cod stocks collapsed. You could still find cod on the Grand Banks, says Rose, but they were little things, never more than five years old. And for the first time in five hundred years of written history, the ancient migration failed to take place.

This article, along with other landmark Orion essays about our connection to the animal world, are collected in a new anthology, Animals & People. Order your copy here.

J.B. MacKinnon is the author or coauthor of five books of nonfiction. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in such publications as the New Yorker, National Geographic, and the Atlantic, as well as the Best American Science and Nature Writing anthologies. He is an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of British Columbia, where he teaches feature writing. MacKinnon’s latest book is The Day the World Stops Shopping, a thought experiment that imagines what would happen—to our economies, our products, our planet, our selves—if we committed to consuming far fewer of the Earth’s resources. Previous works are The Once and Future World, a bestseller about rewilding the natural world; The 100-Mile Diet (with Alisa Smith), widely recognized as a catalyst of the local foods movement; I Live Here (with Mia Kirshner and artists Michael Simons and Paul Shoebridge), a ‘paper documentary’ about displaced people; and Dead Man in Paradise, the story of a priest assassinated in the Dominican Republic, which won Canada’s highest prize for literary nonfiction.


  1. For some reason I can’t quite limn, moments in this piece nearly brought me to tears. The scientific conjecture is paired very expertly with a personal angle—one that always remains short of hokey. Thank you, JP.

  2. Yes, the same for me. Nearly brought me to tears, but also never hokey. Thank you, JBM.

  3. In all the years of human history, it has been only in the last few
    that a people could afford to ignore their local geographies as completely as we do and still survive.

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