Adam Smith, the father of modern-day economics noted in his seminal work The Wealth of Nations that Homo economicus was the only species on the planet who engaged in commerce. The ability to “exchange one thing for another,” he declared, “is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals.”
But is that true, or is there evidence that animals are also entrepreneurial and have found ways to make exchanges — if not for hard cold cash — but for things, which are near and dear to them?
Penguins Pay in Pebbles
Take the penguins for instance. When they start courting they’re very careful who they offer gifts. When a male selects the female he most desires, he presents her with a perfect pebble to demonstrate his devoted interest.
If the pebble is accepted, the two will mate for life. And these aren’t just ordinary rocks, the male gentoo penguin searches through piles of stones to find the smoothies, the most perfect ones — sort of like when human males shop for engagement rings for their fiancés. In fact, pebbles are so important to the penguins, males often fight over the prettiest selections. If that ain’t crass commercial competition, I don’t know what is?
Membership has Privilege with Paper Wasps
A female paper wasp recruits “helper” wasps to assist in the childcare of her offspring. With this type of quid pro quo, the recruits can choose where they work, selecting from various nests in the female's domain. So this commercial exchange rewards helpers with a place to lay their stinger, sort of speak. It's a valued membership into the female's network. However, it is important to note, similar to poor human work performance, if these new hires don’t pull their weight, they may be given the boot for not living up to their commitment.
Supply and demand also comes into play with wasp microeconomics. When the the number of nests increase in her kingdom [or queendom], females will become more tolerant to smaller contributions made by her helpers. In essence, the females behave like real estate landlords, just as an economist would predict. With a great supply of wasp nests, landlords can lower the entrance free for each single abode. When the supply diminishes, the rent goes up.
Biological Trading Partners
As noted in a recent Bloomberg feature, the formation of two different species that partner up is similar to trade agreements in human markets with two classes of traders, such as producers and consumers, or employers and employees. For example, Lycaenid butterfly caterpillars produce a sweet “nectar” whose only purpose is to attract ants, which in turn eat the nectar and protect the caterpillars from predators.
Sort of like “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” this quid pro quo paradigm is fairly common. Also known as 'symbiotic relationships', zebras and oxpecker birds struck up this type of deal eons ago. Nobody likes to be covered in ticks, particularly zebras. So these large mammals are more than welcoming when oxpecker birds hang out on their backs, eating the ticks and parasites that annoy zebras. The zebras are free from pesky pests, and the birds get delicious meals.
Also, when these bird sense something's amiss, they let out a clarion call, alerting their four-hooved friends there may be danger ahead. Talk about a beneficially-satisfying business relationship. It’s a win-win.
Adam Smith was definitely a thought leader when it came to modern-day economics. However, he might have been better served to have realized that some of these natural principles existed in nature, long before man entered the scene establishing markets and trading internationally. Animalus Anthropomorphicus Economicus is as old as the planet!