Several years ago, my stepson (age 19) “borrowed” his father’s BMW to take my son (age 9) to Disneyland, about 40 miles from our Los Angeles home.
“Matt drove the car at over 110 miles an hour,” my son confessed gleefully on their return. I was, of course, furious.
I was also perplexed. What on earth was he doing? Why do teenagers enjoy taking death-defying risks?
It turns that this crazy behavior is not just present in humans, but also in animals.
Take this favorite game of death played by teenage male sea otters near San Francisco. From the BBC:
If you are an otter who wants to play a game of “chicken”, then perhaps the best place to head for is a patch of ocean that stretches south of the San Francisco Bay towards the Farallon Islands. As explained by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers in their book Zoobiquity, this treacherous bit of sea is known as the “triangle of death” for good reason – the considerable threat of great white sharks is increased by the conspicuous absence of kelp that otters normally use to hide. Add dangerous currents and sharp rocks, and a shark has the perfect recipe for a sea otter snack. Oh, and the waters are teeming with the dangerous parasite Toxoplasmosa gondii.
All the sensible otters stay away, but not the adolescent males, who apparently love to play there.
Or check out the behavior of these teenage African elephants.
When a group of juvenile elephants were growing up in South Africa’s Kruger National Park in the 1980s, the mature males and females of their group were culled, and the youngsters were moved to a different park, more than 300 miles away, where there were no adult elephants. While male-on-male fighting generally accounts for about six percent of male deaths, in this community almost ninety percent of male deaths were caused by male aggression between these adolescent elephants.
Human teenagers don’t die so directly at the hands of enemies, but they do take deadly risks. The Centers for Disease Control reports that one third of teenage deaths are associated with car crashes, and that homicide is responsible for another 13 percent of deaths for adolescent human males. But as with elephants, males are more likely to die than females.
For another example from the animal kingdom, we can check out teenage Thomson’s gazelles who, on spotting predators like cheetahs or lions, decide to follow them, rather than taking flight.
Again, from the BBC:
It’s thought this sort of reverse stalking behaviour, which is also common in fish and birds, reduces the risk of being attacked. Lions and cheetahs stalk before they ambush prey, and if the gazelle make clear their awareness of the predator’s presence, it may delay its next hunting attempt. This behaviour is only seen with predators who use a stalk-and-ambush strategy – gazelle do not follow hyena, despite the fact that more gazelle die from predation by hyenas than by cheetahs or lions.
While it isn’t only the juveniles who follow their predators – adults do it too – the younger gazelle face a much higher risk. The probability of being killed while following a cheetah is one in 5,000 for mature gazelle, but only one in 417 for teenagers.
Just like for us human parents, raising a teenager is also a tricky business in the animal world. But what’s going on in those adolescent brains?
Risky behavior in adolescence is hardly a new phenomenon, but with brain imaging technology, we understand why it’s happening. Scientific studies show that the adolescent brain is not yet fully developed. Teens tend to use the frontal lobe of the brain more often, and that’s the part associated with pleasure seeking and risk taking. So teenagers may have a full intellectual understanding of risk and have every intention of avoiding high-risk activities, but they don’t have the full capacity to control themselves.
And we are learning that the same is true for numerous other species too.
I’m not sure that it helps parents of human teenagers to know that they wrestle with the same problems as their animal equivalents, but apparently education alone is not enough to prevent those adolescent behaviors.
I wonder what the otter equivalent of “you’re grounded” is?
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