Learning From Israeli Fish About Conflict and Social Behavior

Arrivals / Departures: Two researches go to Eilat's reef to learn from the fishes; four Israeli hikers talk about trekking Mont Blanc.

Alex Gordon and Simon Gingins
Tomer Appelbaum

Alex Gordon, 35, and Simon Gingins, 31; live in Konstanz, Germany; flying to Zurich

Hello, can I ask why you visited Israel?

Alex: Two reasons.

Shall we start with the first?

I study fish and I did research in Eilat, in the Red Sea, about the evolution of social behavior in fish. The study began in Australia. At the moment I’m doing a post-doc at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, but I’m originally from Australia, where the largest coral reef exists.

So, what brings you to the small reef in Eilat?

Alex: Because in Eilat the coral reef is accessible, which is unusual. And Eilat is geographically closer to Europe and safer compared to Sinai. Maybe next time I’ll try Jordan.

And the second reason?

Alex: We are planning a cooperative project with the Weizmann Institute [of Science, in Rehovot]. An Israeli researcher and I received a scholarship to do a joint study. We just got it a few weeks ago, and I’m meeting the Weizmann researcher here at the airport so we can discuss working together.

Can you tell me about your research?

Alex: On the Eilat reef, I studied a group of fish from the damselfish family, called the black-bordered dascyllus – dascyllus marginatus in Latin. They are a good research subject. It’s always difficult to follow individuals in a school of fish. In this species there are four to 15 individuals in a group; they have a hierarchy, there are relationships and the group is very stable. They frequent the same places all the time. It’s difficult to follow other schools of fish – tuna, for example.

So you spend your days snorkeling around fish? Sounds like a dream job.

Alex: No, we set up cameras near them. Simon here is in charge of the technology.

Simon: I’m in charge of placing the cameras. At Max Planck, they use technologically sophisticated equipment. They like high-end equipment. We use 3-D imaging, which allows us to follow each individual and to mark tracks.

Alex: In diving, that’s almost impossible.

You just track them, without intervening?

Alex: No. I’ve manipulated groups so they would be more willing to accept individuals. The collective structure is usually based on size, because the biggest fish is also the strongest. If there is too big a gap in the hierarchy – between the largest and the next-largest – the school can be damaged and fall apart. So we simply remove it from the water and put it back with a new member, or without a previous member.

Do they get along?

Alex: It takes the fish time to reorganize. An individual wants to join a group that’s good – that provides protection, access to food and shelter. An individual may seek the group most attractive for him, but the group itself may not necessarily want him to join. In other words, individuals have their own preferences, and the group does what is possible for it. There is not an unlimited number of individuals, so a conflict is created by a fish’s arrival.

Sounds familiar.

Alex: Whenever a group of individuals comes together they will have conflicting interests, and that can lead to a conflict. I study the way in which the conflicts influence what happens at the group level, the collectivity, the society.

What have you learned?

Alex: It’s a situation that is constantly changing. Sometimes all the individuals cooperate, when they share the same interest. But even if they arrive in the group with an identical interest, it changes over time, and then conflict arises. I want to examine whether, despite the conflict, the groups and collectivities still exist. In other words – how groups are formed and survive.

Will the research with the Weizmann Institute also deal with this?

Alex: My next study will be about spiders and their decisions in a difficult context. Among spiders, the males decide who to mate with. There are a great many complex relationships within a group. Many choices relate to how the group is formed; I examine whether it has in fact reached its optimal solution. Whether the spiders have achieved a successful collective solution to complex tasks.

Can you infer anything about human beings from this?

Naturally, there is a resemblance between human society and animal society, but I try to avoid drawing implications.

Ben Lev and Nogah Hertz, Gil Hertz and Itay Covo
Tomer Appelbaum

Ben Lev, 32, and Nogah Hertz, 30, live in Givatayim; Gil Hertz, 30, and Itay Covo, 32, live in Tel Aviv; arriving from Geneva

Hello, can I ask you a few questions?

Ben: No telepathy please, okay, girls?

Twins – are you alike in personality, too?

Itay: Nogah is more “still waters run deep,” Gili is more sharp-tongued and assertive. She’s the voice of reason.

Nogah: We are very much alike. We are also alike in the things we do in life. We didn’t go in different directions.

Gili: I am an industrial designer.

Nogah: I am an interior designer.

Itay: I am a graphic designer.

Ben: We’ve been together for four-and-a-half years.

Nogah: We know each other from the army.

Ben: The four of us have a WhatsApp group, and sometimes I write something and they send the exact same reply back, at the same instant. On the trip, people asked us whether we’re twins, too, and that made it really creepy.

Where were you?

Ben: Mont Blanc. I’m always looking for the next trek, places that are beautiful and where you can also walk a lot. Nogah and I were in Georgia two years ago and we met a young woman who had done Mont Blanc with her mother. So I checked out trekking forums, and it looked good.

Gil: It was easy to persuade us.

Itay: He threw out an idea and we went for it.

How do you do Mont Blanc?

Ben: There’s a classic way: The route is circular and you walk counterclockwise. It usually takes 11 days. Some people do it in eight, but that means walking 10 hours a day.

Itay: You go through three countries. You start in France, at Chamonix, then pass through Italy and Switzerland, and back to France.

Nogah: It’s a very difficult trek, with a cumulative ascent of 10 kilometers. Every day you go up around 1,000 and down 1,000 meters. The distance isn’t an issue. Usually in treks it’s about how many kilometers you have to cover, but here it’s how far you go up and down. We walked between five and eight hours a day. At night you sleep like the dead.

Ben: On the second or third day, we barely walked, the fourth day was borderline, and after the fifth day, it was magical.

What was hardest?

Gil: The end of the day. We walked on ice, on a steep slope, and below us was a cliff. That was on the ascent to a cabin in a very snowy area, elevation 2,400 meters, a very narrow path. We were afraid of slipping; there’s an abyss to the right.

Did you train for the trip?

Nogah: We run a little in Israel.

Gil: We ran a little in Tel Aviv and we also climbed Mount Carmel with backpacks. Itay walked up six flights of stairs every day.

Itay: They have nothing to grumble about, they support each other, but we men can’t show weakness.

Ben: Mont Blanc doesn’t tolerate grumblers!

What was the most fun?

Ben: It’s a very rewarding trek. The views are incredible, there are cabins along the way. Some cabins are dug into the earth and have ecological showers, and there is always beer and espresso and desserts.

Nogah: Most people sit outside the cabin, without phones or books, they just sit a few hours and look at the view.

Ben: As soon as the Europeans get to a cabin they have a glass of beer in their hand.

Gil: The other trekkers are amazing. It’s a circular route, so there aren’t many options. Usually, whoever you start the route with, you see them the whole way.

Ben: There’s a huge range – from kids of 17 to Europeans of 70.

Gil: Relatively speaking, it’s a trek with a lot of older people. There’s a group of Alpinists who are used to this kind of hiking and walking in snow.

Nogah: And everyone is very nice.

What do you eat along the way, before getting to a cabin?

Nogah: The Israelis take tahini and cucumbers. We switched fast to smelly cheeses and gave up on the vegetables right off the bat.

Gil: Our bags stink of cheese!