While there are some people that take to water like they are fish, most of us had to learn our underwater skills. Swimming just isn’t something that comes naturally to humans and according to one survey, an estimated 17% of people living in America do not know how to swim.
This number is even lower in low-income countries, with reports estimating that only 1 in 4 people know how to swim. Scientists hypothesize that a lot of swimming is done for pleasure, rather than survival like in the case of animals. So, not everyone has the luxury of learning to swim.
Now that we’ve talked about the people, why do all animals know how to swim, or at least seem to?
Most animals know how to swim because it’s instinctual. There are times in the wild when knowing how to swim makes the difference between life and death. Plus, many animals are four-legged, so they’re well-suited to doggy paddling and have buoyancy that keeps them afloat in a way that at the very least prevents drowning.
Below, we’ll take a closer look at the reason that all animals seem to instinctually know how to swim, as well as the reasons that humans don’t have this trait.
Why Do All Animals Know How to Swim?
Animals know how to swim because they are driven by instinct. If an animal were to encounter a body of water for some reason, whether they need to get across it or are caught up in flood waters, they would need to be able to swim or they wouldn’t survive. It’s as simple as that.
In the case of certain animals, like four-legged quadrupeds, the shape of their body helps keep them afloat. Once the animal is floating, at the very least, they are able to make some sort of paddling motion with their legs. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all animals are efficient swimmers, but they are good enough at swimming that it would help in a survival situation.
Other animals (like birds) have waterproof feathers that aid in buoyancy. Plus, they may or may not have webbed feet that can help them move along in the water. Like the beautiful swans in the video below.
Even those without webbed feet are capable of swimming to at least some extent because their feathers keep them afloat.
While we cannot necessarily say that animals developed the ability to swim because of evolution, it’s worth mentioning that those animals that cannot swim are much more likely to perish in the event that they end up in the water.
So, those individuals in a species that are capable of swimming are more likely to survive and more likely to reproduce, passing on those features that make swimming possible to their offspring.
Do Animals Teach Their Offspring to Swim?
For children in the human world, the ability to swim often has to do with their exposure to swimming, whether or not their parents swim, and if they’ve had the learning opportunity. This isn’t necessarily the case with animals, though. Researchers have had mixed opinions on whether some animals teach others for years.
In fact, according to the National Wildlife Federation, only four animals have been observed teaching their offspring, including superb fairy wrens, southern pied-babblers, meerkats, and a species of rock ant.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that teaching isn’t happening. Some scientists argued that teaching required complex thinking that most animals aren’t capable of, so there’s some dispute as to whether animals can teach their offspring at all.
Why Don’t All Humans Know How to Swim?
Swimming is a learned activity for humans, rather than being an instinctual behavior like it is in animals. Additionally, animals have four legs that allow them to at least perform some type of “doggy paddle”. Regardless of how good they are at swimming, most animals can at least achieve a doggy paddle in the event that they end up in the water.
As bipeds (meaning creatures that walk on two legs), humans can’t instinctually achieve a doggy paddle. By contrast, many animals that can achieve this doggy paddle are quadripeds, meaning they walk on four legs.
This may leave you wondering about chimps and other bipeds in the animal kingdom. In the case of chimps, they are rarely observed swimming in the water. There is anecdotal evidence that they are capable of swimming, but it seems that chimps don’t necessarily go out of their way to swim, though they have been seen playing in the water.
Great apes, by contrast, are rarely seen in the water at all. One hypothesis is that they are afraid of water, much like humans. Not only is there a fear of drowning, but predators often lurk in the water as well.
Back to humans, though. The reason humans don’t instinctually know how to swim is because of the way their body is designed. Because we stand erect, it’s harder to float naturally on top of the water.
Standing upright creates drag instead of buoyancy, so some type of motion is needed to keep your head above water. Plus, you’d likely have to be more horizontal instead of vertical, which would help with floating instead of drowning.
When Did Humans Learn to Swim?
Even though the ability to swim is not an instinct, there would have been a time when man first entered the water. Surprisingly, this may have happened a lot earlier than many people assume- man started swimming as early as prehistoric times, according to cave paintings and drawings.
Modern day swimming for recreation is traced all the way back to 2500 BCE in civilizations like Greece and Rome. Not only was swimming a part of martial arts training, but young boys often learned to swim as part of elementary education. Ancient Romans even built swimming pools.
That being said, there is also evidence that early Neanderthals were frequent swimmers, though it’s not known whether they did this for pleasure, to aid in fishing expeditions or a combination of both.
There have been several remains from 40,000-100,000 years ago uncovered that have bony growths in the ear that are consistent with a swimmer’s ear, something that happens from being in the water frequently and participating in water sports.
Do All Animals Know How to Swim?
While it would be hard to say with 100% certainty that all animals know how to swim, especially when you look at all the individual members of a species, most animals do know how to swim. They aren’t necessarily all efficient or effective swimmers, but they can keep their heads above the water and use their legs in a way that prevents drowning.
While it’s not necessarily evolution that has gotten animals this far, most of them do know how to swim. Animals are driven by their instinct to survive and should they end up in any body of water, their survival is going to come down to their ability to swim.
This isn’t to say that all animals know how to swim well, though. For the giraffe, for example, its ability to swim is greatly helped by the fact that they float on the water. Their long, thin legs aren’t really suited to swimming, but they can keep their head above water and maneuver themselves just enough to help them get to the other side of the water.
So, why do all animals know how to swim? It’s an instinct that comes from the instinct to survive. If an animal ends up in the water, it could be a life-or-death situation if they were unable to swim.
Many animals have traits that aid in their ability to swim, or at the very least stay afloat long enough to survive. For quadrupeds, their bodies are buoyant and they can achieve at least a doggy paddle that helps them move through the water. Other animals (like birds or ants) may also have a waterproof coating that helps them stay afloat, which is a big part of swimming.
Humans, by contrast, have to be taught to swim because our bodies are more suited to drowning than swimming. The way we stand upright does not aid in buoyancy and it requires effort like moving our hands and kicking our feet to help us stay afloat.
Despite this, swimming has been a part of human behavior since prehistoric times. That being said, all people still do not know how to swim and it certainly isn’t something that comes naturally.