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Fighting like an animal doesn’t always mean a duel to the death

Conflict resolution involves posturing, cost-benefit analyses, and sometimes high-stakes slaying

By
3:05pm, May 3, 2018
gemsbok fighting

FIGHT CLUB  Extravagant headgear on male animals like these gemsbok in Namibia’s Etosha National Park can give species a ferocious look. But bulked-up adversaries may be far from nature’s most routinely lethal fighters.

Pick an animal.

Choose wisely because in this fantasy you’ll transform into the creature and duel against one of your own. If you care about survival, go for the muscular, multispiked stag roaring at a rival. Never, ever pick the wingless male fig wasp. Way too dangerous.

This advice sounds exactly wrong. But that’s because many stereotypes of animal conflict get the real biology backward. All-out fighting to the death is the rule only for certain specialized creatures. Whether a species is bigger than a breadbox has little to do with lethal ferocity.

Many creatures that routinely kill their own kind would be terrifying, if they were larger than a jelly bean. Certain male fig wasps unable to leave the fruit they hatch in have become textbook examples, says Mark Briffa, who studies animal combat. Stranded for life in one fig, these males grow “big mouthparts like a pair of scissors,” he says, and “decapitate as many other males as they

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