What companies can learn from the animal kingdom

Charles Darwin already knew: In the animal kingdom, those that are better adapted survive. We talked to Robert Zingg, Senior Curator at Zurich Zoo, about why some species grow to be especially old. Companies striving for stability and sustainability should not just use animal Methuselahs as role models, but also get to know short-lived species.

Dr. Robert Zingg, Zurich Zoo is the only zoo in Europe that has successfully bred Galápagos giant tortoises, an endangered species. Some of these tortoises are known to live over 150 years. In extreme cases, Galápagos giant tortoises live nearly 60,000 times longer than certain species of flies. Why is there such a broad bandwidth of life spans in the animal kingdom?

The objective of any animal is to pass its genes on to the next generation. They can only do this if they live at least long enough to be sexually mature and to repro-duce. The time spans until sexual maturity, and the number of offspring created differ widely, depending on the species and the result of their developmental history. Species have specialized in a wide range of habitats and occupy a specific niche in the ecosystems to be found there. The genetic heritage of each species is specifically adapted to the living conditions in these niches. Evolution, in turn, ensures that the genetic heritage adapts to the changing environmental requirements. Of course, there are different dangerous habitats and various dangerous niches. If a species has hardly any enemies in its habitat and, at the same time, has a secure food supply in its niche, then the chances are good that it will live to grow old. This is the case, for example, for the Galápagos giant tortoise.

“The objective of any animal is to pass its genes on to the next generation.”

Dr. Robert Zingg

The Galápagos giant tortoise “Jumbo” has clearly lived for more than 50 years. This is because the male tortoise, like all his fellow species, is cold-blooded and lives a calm life.

Do species react to their respective living conditions with different reproductive strategies?

Yes. And the reproductive strategies have an influence on the age of the species. Those that must quickly reproduce have hardly any natural advantages if they grow old. Mosquitoes and butterflies are examples of such short-lived species. They often live for less than a year and are only seasonally active. Such animals tend to choose a reproductive strategy in which they quickly create very many offspring. They do so “knowing” that most of them will die. Flies, for example, lay large quantities of eggs. Species that have specialized in rapidly chang-ing habitats also choose this reproduction strategy. They can only conquer the briefly available habitat by reproducing very quickly. Humans often unjustifiably view this rapid multiplication involving such reproductive strategies as a plague, but such species are merely taking advantage of the opportunity. This is also because they are non-competitive and are quickly threatened by other, better adapted species in dynamic habitats. Many such reproductive strategies can also be found in the plant kingdom, by the way, including many cultivated plants. For example, cereals grow very quickly and produce large quantities of seeds in the process.

Which reproductive strategies tend to rely on longer life spans in the animal kingdom?

The capacity strategy is one example. It is used by animal species that require a long time to become sexually mature, and that invest a lot of time and energy in caring for their offspring. The survival chances of the offspring increase greatly as a result of the good care provided. That is why small litters suffice to provide the number of offspring necessary to conserve the species. Orangutans are an impressive example of this strategy. They give birth in intervals of 6 to 9 years. This time is used to teach the young animals how to later survive on their own in the rain forest. This is only possible with a great deal of specialized knowledge. While the rain forest is extremely diverse in species, there is hardly sufficient nutrition to support larger animals that can move as a group. This means that the search for food is particularly complex for the solitary orangutan. The capacity strategy is especially used by animals in habitats that only slightly change, because the local ecosystem has reached the so-called climax stage, is stable and can be used to the limits of its capacity. Only in this way can animals so precisely match their progeny to their habitat.

“This means that animals do not work stereotypically, but apply different strategies depending on the situation.”

Dr. Robert Zingg


When companies invest a lot in education and the training of their employees, are they then somehow caring for their brood?

Yes, that’s entirely correct. It increases the chances of survival. Without transferring knowledge to the next generation of employees, the mid-term survival of the company is endangered. Those companies that look after their employees help themselves. However, there is a difference to nature: Companies can take suitable measures to employ new specialists at any time and can dismiss dissatisfac- tory employees. This is different among animals. They work exclusively with their own progeny. There is no “hire and fire” in the animal kingdom.

Can we look at the reproductive strategy and capacity strategy of animals from an economic point of view? For example, is it correct that quality and specialism are what are primarily needed in stable ecosystems?

Yes. Many capacity strategists are specialists, because they are the best in very specific niches of the ecosystem and thereby ensure their survival. Their problem is that they can no longer keep up when the surrounding conditions change and are threatened with extinction. Because, in contrast to companies, specialized species have no possibility to constantly elaborate new innovations and thereby prepare themselves for future circumstances. Adaptations occur only slowly. Charles Darwin first noted this in his book, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life” in 1858.

Do the generalists have any chance at all against the specialists in the animal kingdom?

Yes and no. Not in stable ecosystems, because there the specialists are simply more efficient. This also applies when it comes to feeding. Stud-ies with crabs have shown that they consciously only eat clams of a certain size. They do this because with such clams they need to apply the least amount of energy for each calorie ingested. Such crabs are only that choosy, however, if they need not work too hard when selecting the clams. If the distance covered becomes too long in the process of choosing, then the crabs also settle for other sized clams. This means that animals do not work stereotypically, but apply different strategies depending on the situation. With this example, I also want to demonstrate how efficiently specialized species act within their respective ecological niches. The generalists have the advantage in dynamic habitats; they are more robust and quickly have the advantage over any existing specialists. It might seem astounding, but depending on the market situation, a company should model itself more on the mosquito than the orangutan.

When do animals become truly old? What can companies learn from them? Sculpture in front of Zurich Zoo.

Are animals also able to sense the market? For example, does a predatory cat know when it must change its hunting grounds?

Yes. As soon as the number of prey decreases, has adjusted to the presence of the predatory cat or if a stronger competitor appears, alarm bells go off for any pred-atory cat. They usually seek their hunting luck in another location.

What other factors influence the different ages of species? Take cheetahs: They only live up to a maximum of 15 years. That’s a blink of an eye compared to the life span of the Galápagos giant tortoise...

To reveal two of these factors, it would serve us here to take a look at the special situation of the Galápagos giant tortoise. The Galápagos giant tortoise is cold-blooded and lives a non-hectic life. Its activities are quite essentially determined by the ambient temperature. If its surroundings are warm enough, it becomes active. If the temperature is too low, its metabolism drops to a minimum. While this lifestyle is unspectacular, it is very sustainable. The low pressure from predators in their habitat represents another advantage. This is much more common in special island ecosystems, such as can be found in the Galápagos Archipelago 1,000 kilometers from the Ecuadorian coast. The life span of the Galápagos giant tortoise would be dramatically reduced in the rain forests of Ecuador.

Is it true that, among mammals, larger species live longer than smaller ones?We are thinking here about elephants and whales.

This statement is essentially true, because the metabolic rate, which is the total energy turnover, divided by the body mass, decreases as body size increases. However, there are exceptions. This is because the previously mentioned reproductive strategies influence age more powerfully than the size of the species. Clearly, for mammals there is a critical lower limit at which life becomes nearly impossible due to the increasingly disadvantageous ratios of surface area to volume. The Etruscan shrew – which can be found in Ticino in Switzerland – is the real frontier worker here. They weigh hardly two grams and eat twice their body weight every day. This is a very strenuous and energy-draining lifestyle. With a heart rate of up to 1,000 beats per minute, the Etruscan shrew lives a maximum of one to two years.

“A company that seeks to survive in the market for many years or even decades must learn from different animal species.”

Dr. Robert Zingg

This is an impressive performance considering their apparently very strenuous lifestyle. From a scientific perspective, isn’t it inappropriate to compare the greatest age of various species and to rank them? Doesn’t an Etruscan shrew have a faster biological clock than an orangutan? Does a “shrew second” therefore essentially differ from an “orangutan second”?

That’s correct; we must measure the life spans of animals with different parameters. No species aims to live as long as possible. It is always a matter of ensuring the survival of the species. If a small mammal has reproduced after a year, then it has completed its duty. An orangutan can only do this after 7 to 8 years at the earliest. Therefore, its “second” is correspondingly up to eight times longer than that of the Etruscan shrew.

Cellular researchers have discovered that life spans are also limited by damage to organs. Such damage occurs when the mitochondria in the cells are attack- ed by aggressive chemicals. Such attacks tend to increase as animals grow older. And this is equally true for humans as it is for nearly all species. Apparently, there is also a connection with nutrition in this regard. Those who eat a low-calorie diet with sufficient fruits and vegetables tend to live longer. Corresponding studies have been conducted with apes, rats and fish, among other species. What do you think of such findings?

I am not a cellular researcher and can only comment in a limited capacity. The conclusion that healthy nutrition prolongs life seems very plausible to me. That’s why we also pay particular attention to the species-appropriate feeding of our animals. For example, for our primates and spectacled bears, we removed many fruits from their diet and replaced them with vegetables. This was necessary because fruit cultivated for people has a sugar content that is too high for most mammals. Many of our monkeys were in danger of having a weight problem. The switch to vegetables was difficult for the affected zoo residents, however, and we only managed it with the support of specialized veterinarians and the excellent care of the zoo personnel.

What can companies learn from animals if they seek to survive for a long time in the market and become a successful traditional company?

That would certainly include the constant striving for efficiency. Yet, equally important is the ability to apply different strategies and approaches depending on the situation. This versatility is essential for the survival of animals. A company that seeks to survive in the market for many years or even decades must also learn from different animal species. A rapid and ambush-like “insect strategy”, such as used by mosquitoes, is certainly an advantage in dynamic markets. A concentration on core abilities is recommended in stable markets, which means deciding to be specialists, as modeled by many highly developed mammals. Dancing at many weddings is rarely successful in stable markets in the face of strong competition. Let me put it in other words: A company does not necessarily do business in a constant and sus- tainable manner if it continuously acts like a lion. Depending on the situation, it would be better off emulating an orangutan, a crab or a mosquito.

Does this mean that, for the same reason, you do not recommend a steady “tortoise” or “elephant” strategy if the goal is to become a traditional company?

Without a doubt. Markets in the global economic field are far too dynamic. Companies that act stereotypically die off. Perhaps 30 years ago, the markets offered some companies stable and secure situations like the ecosystem on the Galápagos Islands offered the giant tortoises bearing the same name. Today, however, there tends to be a pitiless battle for survival in the business world that is more like the African savanna. Entrepreneurs aiming for stability and sustainability should be sure to consider this in their approach.

“Today, however, there tends to be a pitiless battle for survival in the business world that is more like the african savanna.”

Dr. Robert Zingg

The curator

Dr. Robert Zingg, Senior Curator at Zurich Zoo: “A company does not necessarily do business in a constant and sustainable manner if it constantly acts like a lion.”

Dr. Robert Zingg, 58, has worked as a curator at Zurich Zoo since 1994. While he was first in charge of mammals and birds, today, the senior curator’s area of responsibility includes the great apes, gibbons, elephants, and rhinoceroses. Robert Zingg already knew he wanted to be a zoologist back when he was in primary school. Living with his family right next to Zoo Basel, certainly influenced this desire. Robert Zingg studied Ethology and Wildlife Biology at the University of Zurich. He worked as an assistant in the Ethology and Wildlife Research departments at the Zoological Institute of the University of Zurich from 1980 to 1985. In addition to his independent activities in nature conservation, he also took on teaching positions in the ’80s and ’90s at the University of Zurich and – to the present – also at the ETH Zurich. Robert Zingg received his Ph.D. in 1994 with fieldwork on hedgehogs. He is a thematically broad-based zoologist who is interested in amphibians and insects, as well as mammals and birds. Robert Zingg has appeared numerous times on Swiss television, such as on the “Horizonte” program. The Zurich Zoo’s great ape department, run by Robert Zingg, has achieved national renown, partly due to a multiple episode documentary broadcast by Swiss television about life in the zoo in 2004. The main protagonist, “Djarius”, an especially charismatic male orangutan, still lives at Zurich Zoo.

Dominik Rothenbühler