Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Weasel That Cooked Its Lunch

Mink (image: user "MWanner," Wikipedia)
According to an intriguing BBC documentary, the cooking of food was the primary technological development that made us human. Cooking made our food softer and easier to chew, allowing our jaws to adapt to the more sophisticated functions associated with verbal communication. Cooking also allowed us to digest our food more efficiently, providing a dramatic increase in nutrition that allowed our brains to grow larger, accelerating our development into the super-species we are today.

The washing of food is an activity that humans share with many other animals, from raccoons to baboons. It's easy to do, and doesn't require much in the way of brainpower. Cooking food is a little different. It involves the controlled application of fire or heat, and is a sophisticated activity requiring high levels of intelligence and manual dexterity. The conventional wisdom is that humans are the only animals with the mental and physical equipment to pull it off, however there are a couple of animals we know of that apparently didn't get the memo.

One of them is Kanzi, a highly intelligent bonobo who is able to use matches and lighters to start his own campfires for roasting marshmallows. But he doesn't really count, because he was diligently taught what to do by his human minders at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa. In the wild, left to his own devices, he never would have figured it out.

There is one animal, however, that apparently has. A curious and unlikely creature that has taught itself how to cook. For real.

Mink angling for trout at Missouri state hatchery*
About 6 miles southwest of Branson, Missouri--home of Roy Clark and Mel Tillis (yes, they're still alive)--is Shepherd of the Hills Fishery, a large trout-farming facility operated by the Missouri Department of Conservation. The fishery's raceways are an irresistible lure for small predators who are drawn to the teaming schools of wriggling, splashing trout. Chief among these is the American Mink (Neovison vison), a slender, brown, semi-aquatic member of the weasel family indigenous to Alaska, Canada, and the western United States.

The mink is an opportunistic carnivore that will eat almost anything that moves. Crabs, frogs, rats, rabbits, insects, and even birds are all on the menu. Minks are especially skilled at hunting muskrat, which, accordingly to American naturalist Elliott Coues, they will pursue underwater and kill in their burrows.

However, much like their mustelid cousin the otter, what Minks prefer over anything else is fish. Tender, succulent, fresh-caught fish. Hence their attraction for the Missouri state hatchery, where they are frequently spotted fetching trout out of the raceways.

Catching the fish is one thing, cooking it is quite another, however at least one of the minks appears to have mastered the art.

About two years ago, hatchery director James Civiello was driving his truck when he began to smell the unmistakeable aroma of frying fish. Returning to his office at Shepherd of the Hills, he was surprised to see a lone trout lying next to his parking space. When he got out of the truck, the smell of cooking fish was even stronger, and seemed to be coming from the engine compartment. Popping the hood, he was surprised to find a dozen rainbow trout roasting to a crispy turn on his engine block. 

Weasel haute cuisine: engine-block roasted trout*
Convinced that he had been pranked by one of his crew, Civiello forgot about the incident until he caught the culprit red-handed, at it again. Returning from an early morning inspection of the spillways, Civiello was startled to see a large mink scampering out of his truck's engine compartment. Popping the hood, he was astonished to find half a dozen freshly-caught trout arranged on the engine block. 

At some point, this particular mink had made the pleasing discovery that cooked rainbow trout was tastier and easier to eat than raw fish. Which, in and of itself, is not that unusual. What's remarkable is that he figured out how to cook it himself. He didn't know how to build a fire, but he was smart enough to know that he needed a heat source, so he made use of the only available resource: the engine block of Civiello's truck.

And we think we're so smart...

*images: Missouri Dept. of Conservation     

Sources & related articles: 

"Trout a la Mink," Jim Low, MDC Online

Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery, Missouri Dept. of Conservation

"Fur-Bearing Animals: A Monograph of North American Mustelidae," Elliott Coues, Government Printing Office (Internet Archive)

"Did Cooking Make Us Human? (BBC Documentary)," EvolutionDocumentary channel, Youtube

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