Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw

An aspect of animal behaviour that has received much attention over the years can be summed up in Alfred Tennyson’s famous phrase ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’. This notion became linked in people’s minds with the phrase ‘struggle for survival’ that came in common use after the publication of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Today there are many television documentaries that focus on the tearing apart and eventual consumption of one animal by another. Indeed, carnivorous animals routinely engage in this kind of behaviour to keep alive.

However, there is an important perspective that is often ignored in discussions on this topic. The great majority of animals spend most of their lives in a state of good health and relative tranquillity, perhaps quite enjoying themselves most of the time. The really nasty bit – being attacked and eaten by another animal – is only a very tiny fraction of their whole life experience; and anyway, it might be preferable to a long, drawn-out and painful death from chronic disease. Moreover, in some mammalian species the release of endorphins during attack by a predator may well significantly reduce the pain and distress.

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