Banana-hiding weasels are the rare animals that know about the future

The fact that the future exists is second nature to us, but few animals share our awareness of events yet to happen. So let's meet the tayra, the first animal outside primates and birds to plan for the future.

Tayras are large, bushy-tailed relatives of the weasel, and they are found throughout South and Central America. Biologists in Costa Rica have picked up on a highly unusual behavior from these creatures. The tayras will pick plantains that still aren't ripe, hide them away, and then come back for them when they're ripe. It's not just that they're hiding away food for later use - it's that they're picking food that they would only want to eat in the future, when it has ripened.

That separates the tayras from most other animals that hide away food. Take a squirrel storing nuts for the winter. Those nuts are strictly leftovers that the squirrel could just as easily have eaten then and there. The tayras are unique because they hide food that isn't edible to them yet. When the biologists put the local ecosystem to the test, the tayras were the only ones who found a use for the unripe fruit, as the other animals were solely interested in food that was definitely ready to eat.

That said, the idea that animals can think ahead, even in a limited way, remains hugely controversial. We've reached the point where most researchers accept that our primate relatives possess this ability, and there's a decent amount of evidence for birds too, but not all are convinced that the tayras' behavior is evidence of future awareness. Mathias Osvath of Sweden's Lund University, for instance, is skeptical of these results, and his arguments give some idea just how finicky figuring this out really can be:

"One of the signs...is being able to plan for a need that you're currently not experiencing. For example, we don't know if the tayras are actually hungry when they are caching...True planning is when you shut your eyes and you think about what you will have for lunch tomorrow."

So for now, all we can really say is that you shouldn't leave your unripe plantains near a tayra. Not if you're planning on eating it sometime later, that is.

Naturwissenschaften via ScienceNOW.