Zoology by observing animals in the field
edition 65: an interview with Vladimir Dinets
Vladimir Dinets is a well-traveled zoologist. He teaches statistics at Rutgers University and is an assistant researcher in psychology at the University of Tennessee.
His latest book is The Secret Social Lives of Reptiles, and it is full of mind blowing examples of reptile behaviors and interactions you’ve never heard of.
Wildlife Spectacles was published in 2016, and is similarly a great read on biodiversity, packed with amazing photos, and insights on how to see them first hand. His photography and research is also available at dinets.info.
Dinets prioritizes direct observation of animal activity, and in that pursuit he has immersed himself in dangerous, remote places. He slept in a tree hollow to photograph a Mexican jaguar, had his cabin wall smashed in by a hungry brown bear, trekked the Siberian back country after being locked out of a hut, and dodged drug smuggling butterfly poachers in the crazy mountains.
I spoke with him about his unique contributions to zoology and his perspective on animal behavior. We spoke in early October 2023.
Ryan: What is life? What does life do? What does intelligent life do?
Vladimir: Well, what is life is mostly a linguistic question. Life is whatever we call life. There is no border between life and no life. It's all very transitional. But I prefer a broad definition. I think anything that can evolve indefinitely under the right conditions is life. Non-chemical processes like religions and superstitions are also life, in a way.
Some people say viruses are not alive because they cannot breed outside host cells. But if you use that approach, then animals are not alive either because they cannot live without plants, right? We cannot generate our own food. I think anything that can evolve can be called life.
And for intelligent life, people tend to call life forms intelligent if these life forms think in the same way as humans. If we look at intelligent animals such as dolphins, they don't seem to do that much with their intelligence. They just have it, but they don't create technology. They don't modify the world around them. They just enjoy it. So I don't think we can expect intelligent life to do anything specific.
Ryan: What technologies have advanced your research? If you could wave a magic wand and advance a technical field 10 years, what would that be?
Vladimir: Thermal imaging certainly has changed a lot because now you can observe animals at night without disturbing them. Before that you had to use a flashlight and that was limiting.
30 years ago the bottleneck in the development of our civilization was information processing. We were limited by typewriters. Then computers appeared and the Internet and that bottleneck was completely removed. I think the next bottleneck that we're facing is the learning process.
Humans take decades to learn anything. Life is changing so much that whatever you learn is obsolete in a few years, and you don't have time to keep up, no matter how smart you are. I don't know how this bottleneck can be solved, but I think it will be; and I would certainly love to learn things that I cannot learn now because I simply don't have time to do it.
Ryan: How do you see education changing?
Vladimir: Public school education in the United States is extremely uneven. For mathematics, it's almost universally terrible. But I think that the whole educational system will have to change in the coming years because it's so obviously not up to date. I don't know how it will be able to change.
But the way it works now, people learn the basics, then they learn foundations of everything, and then they begin to specialize. I think the middle part of this process will have to be dropped. People will learn the universal basics like counting and writing. Or typing; nobody writes anymore really. Typing and reading. And then they will jump straight to becoming a specialist in a certain field.
It's becoming totally impossible to know everything. And with artificial intelligence, entire fields of learning are becoming unnecessary.
Of course, this all assumes that our civilization will persist, which is far from guaranteed. It is possible that in 10 years the most useful skill might be the ability to catch rats with snares made of your hair, something like that.
Ryan: Did you know pretty early on that you wanted to study animals?
Vladimir: Around the age of three.
Ryan: Was there a person or a place in your life that drew you in?
Vladimir: I grew up in Moscow, which had 10 million citizens, so there was very little nature around, but every summer we would travel. We would spend time outside of the city, and there were some forests and natural habitats, and I immediately realized that that was my kind of natural environment, and that's where I wanted to spend my life. And when I was three, I learned to read, and started reading books about animals.
And I spent the next part of my life trying to get out of Moscow, which I eventually succeeded in doing.
Ryan: You spent time searching for butterflies in a region where poachers would take rare butterfly species illegally. Can you tell me about that?
Vladimir: Well, it was very long time ago. What happened was my father was a butterfly collector and also researcher in his spare time.
When I was still a teenager, he took me on one expedition and then I kind of looked for the same kind of stuff in different trips. And I realized that it's very commonly said that butterfly collectors have zero impact on butterflies compared to things like habitat loss and pesticides. But it's not true because butterfly collectors specifically target the rarest species that they can.
They can very easily drive species to extinction. I'm working on a paper about this, which is mostly based on my father's experience. He died a couple years ago, but he left some unpublished stuff that I'm going to publish. And there was one case where catching just nine butterflies caused a subspecies to go extinct.
It was so rare and localized that just one expedition basically drove it to extinction. It's never been found again.
Ryan: Have you ever been in a sketchy situation with a predator that might have spotted you as prey?
Vladimir: Yeah, that has happened a few times.
I had to escape into a tree from a tiger. But it's just part of life, you know. There are still lots of people in the world who have to face this every day, in parts of Africa and India, people who have to dive for a living in places with lots of sharks and crocodiles. African women who have to wash their clothes in rivers with crocodile populations, and people just are used to it, it's part of their life.
And it used to be part of our life. But now, of course, in every country where they get like 10 wolves and the wolves kill one sheep, there is immediately a whole lobby demanding to kill them all because they're potentially dangerous.
Ryan: The time you escaped from a tiger, how were you able to get away by getting up into a tree? Did he lose sight of you?
Vladimir: Well yeah, I saw the tiger, the tiger saw me and we kind of immediately understood what was going on and I climbed the tree and the tiger followed. So I had to break off a branch and poke it in the face until it left.
Then it got really funny because it tried to hide and wait for me. I spotted it so I didn't come down, and then finally it left.
Ryan: So you saw him go try to hide in the grass and you just waited for a long time in a small tree?
Vladimir: Yeah, he just eventually lost interest and left. It was in India, and they have a beautiful little deer called chital. And they give alarm calls if they see a tiger, so you can kind of follow a tiger by the alarm calls. And I heard alarm calls in the distance, and I realized that the tiger was walking away.
Ryan: How do you feel when something like that happens? Is it a high adrenaline moment or do you feel calm?
Vladimir: Well, you have to stay calm. Otherwise, it will just kill you.
There are situations when there is nothing you can do. Like if a brown bear decides to kill you and you don't have a gun and there is no tree to climb, there is really nothing to do. It will kill you. It doesn't matter how smart you are.
Ryan: Do you still do guided trips, and do you have any upcoming guided trips that you want to promote?
Well, I have this idea of guiding wildlife viewing trips for families or people with children. And I'm trying to organize one to Socotra, but I haven't really started planning it yet in detail.
I also might have one to the Sahara Desert next spring. But my children are a little bit too small. Well, one of them, the 3 year old, is a little bit too small for that. So I might start doing it seriously in about a year or two.
Ryan: If you could have a conversation with an animal, which one would you want to talk to?
Vladimir: Animals that are not closely related to us are much more difficult to understand. So I would really like to talk with something that is as remote from us as possible. Probably an octopus. Because that would be really more informative. If it's a primate, we can intuitively understand at least some of its thinking, but something like an octopus is impossible.
Ryan: What would you want to ask?
Vladimir: I don't think it would be anything specific. I would just listen to whatever she has to say. Hey, what's up, dude? I think we have too little understanding to even start asking the right questions.
Ryan: Have you had any surprising animal observations recently?
Vladimir: I'm currently working on a paper about a hawk that I've been observing. It used to live close to my house. We have this street crossing, and there is a streetlight with those sound signals for blind people.
The hawk realized that every time this sound signal is on, it means that the pedestrian crossing has been activated. So the red light is going to last longer than usual. And that means that the line of cars waiting will also be longer than usual. So every morning it comes to the area, it waits for this sound signal.
It assumes the position as long as the car line is becoming long, and it uses the line as a cover for approaching birds at a feeder. There is a place where starlings and doves feed every morning. And the line of cars provides cover to approach it.
Ryan: It flies low to the ground?
Vladimir: Yeah, it's a Cooper's Hawk, they are ambush hunters. They sneak up on prey. It took me a few weeks to figure out what was really going on there.
Ryan: That's amazing! Do you think it's one individual or multiple?
I only saw one. Well, I saw two birds, one in the first year and the other in the next year. And I think they were the same individual, but I have no proof. It would be quite unlikely to be two different birds.
Ryan: Is it a signal of intelligence when an animal modifies its environment?
Vladimir: All living things modify their environment. When single-cell organisms evolved photosynthesis they forever changed the planet's atmosphere and likely caused a mass extinction because oxygen was toxic for many other organisms. We modify our environment in countless ways, and seldom understand the consequences. Are we happier today than in pre-agricultural era? I am not sure. Will we survive the consequences of our meddling with the world? We might not. We declared ourselves the most intelligent life form ever, but it remains to be seen if we deserve that medal.
Vladimir Dinet's latest book is the Secret Lives of Social Reptiles.
His other books include: