January 2016 Newsletter

 January 2016

What's New

Happy New Year from your friends at the Animal Behavior Institute! As we look forward to new beginnings and fresh starts, what have you resolved for 2016? To begin a new career path, create new connections, or to take your training to a new level? Whatever your goals, we suggest that you put these desires into words by writing them down and taking your first step - however small - today.

Just Ask Alex


There has only been one non-human animal to ever ask an existential question. If you had to guess what animal that was, you might think of a gorilla or an orangutan. However, the animal philosopher is feathered, not furry. Alex the parrot earned that title when he was learning colors, and asked his trainers, “What color am I?” What’s more, this impressive train of thought was not an isolated event. Alex the parrot was revered during and after his life for his astounding accomplishments in learning colors, shapes, numbers and other concepts.


Alex, an African grey parrot, started out life in a Chicago pet shop near O’Hare Airport. His wings were clipped when he was young, which prevented him from learning to fly. However, this did not deter him from learning many other skills. His future took off when animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg purchased young Alex from the pet store and took him home.


Pepperberg named the bird Alex as an acronym for her project, Avian Language Experiment, which later changed to Avian Learning Experiment. The project began at the University of Arizona, later moving to Harvard University and Brandeis University. The work was groundbreaking for many reasons. Prior to this experiment, it was believed that only a primate brain could handle complex problems involving language and advanced comprehension. Alex shattered these beliefs by proving that birds can reason and use language on a basic level. By the time of Alex’s death, Pepperberg believed that he had reached the intelligence of a five-year-old, and the emotional level of a two-year-old.


Initial training attempts, using positive reinforcement, failed to produce the desired results. Instead, a new approach was required; Alex was trained with a model/rival technique. This technique requires the student, Alex, to observe his two trainers interacting. One of the trainers would model the desired student behavior, and function as a rival for the other trainer’s attention. The roles would then switch so that Alex could see that the process was interactive. Later, Alex would function as the model/rival while another parrot was being trained.


Through this technique, trainers were able to facilitate two-way communication with Alex, and teach him to recognize 50 different objects, colors, shapes, quantities, and understand the concepts of "bigger," "smaller," "same," and "different." At the end of his life, Alex was even learning “over” and “under.” When Alex was shown an object and was asked about its shape, color, or material, he could label it correctly. He even identified an apple as a “banerry,” a combination of two words he was more familiar with, banana and cherry. This shows that he was able to creatively combine words to describe what he was seeing.


Video of Alex training with Pepperberg


Alex could understand when trainers were irritated as well. He would sometimes respond, “I’m sorry” to try and diffuse the situation. If he said, "Wanna banana," but was offered a nut instead, he stared in silence, asked for the banana again, or took the nut and threw it at the researcher. By the end of his life, Alex could identify personal pronouns, using “I” and “you” correctly, and he even indicated an understanding of the concept of zero.


Sadly, Alex passed away on September 6, 2007, at the age of 31. This was a very young death for a parrot and it came as a shock to everyone. His last words to Pepperberg were “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.” These were the words he said to her when she left every night. Since then, Pepperberg has written a book about her experiences with Alex, called “Alex & Me,” published by HarperCollins. In addition, the Alex Foundation was founded in Alex’s memory to support research demonstrating the intelligence of parrots. Alex had an astounding life, and even after his death, he continues to pave the way for research advancing our understanding of animal intelligence.


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Self Awareness in Animals

When you look in the mirror, you don’t even have to think about the fact that the face staring back at you is… you! We’ve come to expect to see a backwards version of our features. The notion that there is a second you standing there is not difficult to comprehend. But to animals, this represents a very sophisticated concept. Self-awareness, or the ability to recognize oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals, is found in very few animals other than humans. Even people are not born with this ability. Infants cannot recognize that images in the mirror are reflections of their own bodies until they are 15-18 months old.


Self-awareness not only means that the individual can recognize themselves as separate from others, but that they can imagine how others might perceive them, which leads to emotions like pride or shame. Animals with self-awareness recognize their own physical bodies as well as their own characters, feelings, and desires. To test whether an animal possesses this ability, scientists developed the “mirror test”. In this test, an experimenter places a colored dot on the animal’s forehead and then presents them with a mirror. If the animal moves their own body to get a better view of the dot, touches the dot, or tries to remove it, the animal understands that the reflection is their own. However, the behavior of most animals indicates that they perceive their reflection as another animal.


In 1838, Charles Darwin was visiting the London Zoo when he observed an orangutan named Jenny gazing into a mirror. As he watched her, he began to realize that she was aware that she was seeing a reflection of herself. 130 years later, scientists reenacted Darwin’s observation to complete the first mirror test. The mirror test demonstrated that orangutans, as well as other primates such as chimpanzees, have some form of self-awareness. However, self-awareness extends beyond primates to other highly intelligent animals.

In 2001, the mirror test was given to two bottlenose dolphins. The dolphins were marked with black ink and then exposed to reflective surfaces underwater. In response to their reflections, the dolphins did not show the social responses that they would show to another dolphin. Instead, they spent more time in front of the mirror when marked, and approached the mirror faster when marked, to examine the difference in themselves. Researchers speculate that dolphins have developed self-awareness due to their large brains and powerful cognitive abilities.


Elephants have demonstrated self-awareness as well. In a 2006 experiment, an 8-foot mirror was placed in an elephant enclosure at the Bronx Zoo in New York. Like the dolphins, elephants did not greet their reflections as they would another elephant, but used the mirrors to inspect themselves and the inside of their mouths. Interestingly, the elephants also tried to look behind the mirror, which reveals that they recognized that it was not simply an extension of their enclosure.


The most surprising animal to pass the mirror test is the European Magpie. Magpies are the only bird, and the only non-mammal, to pass this test. Magpies were given the test in 2008, when colored dots were placed on their necks that they could not see without looking in the mirror. The magpies did not react to the feel of the dots, but began scratching their necks when placed in front of a mirror. Magpies presented an interesting twist to our previous understanding of self-awareness; it was thought to stem from the neocortex of the brain but magpies lack a neocortex.


The mirror test demonstrates self-awareness in several species. However, the test is not without flaws. For example, many gorillas fail the mirror test despite their high intelligence. This isn’t due to a lack of awareness; it is more likely due to the fact that they avoid eye contact. Eye contact is an aggressive gesture in gorillas and this may explain their reluctance to explore their own reflection. Similarly, several species that previously failed the mirror test have begun to pass it under new circumstances that better reflect their behavior and biology. The extent of self-awareness in the animal kingdom is not yet known. However, self-awareness experiments have demonstrated that this ability, which was once thought to distinguish humans from animals, is instead another deep connection that we share.


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Is College Going to the Dogs?

Did you go away to college as a student, only to find yourself missing your dog or cat from home? At Eckerd College, students come not only for the campus life and social life, but also for the pet life. Eckerd allows students to bring pets from home to live with them in four pet-friendly dorms on campus. This policy is relatively unique in higher education, but students and animals alike have been enjoying it for years. Family pets from dogs and cats to ferrets and snakes have been following their owners to college and providing a warm sense of home in a far away place.


Eckerd students and faculty agree that having a pet at college can provide many benefits. For example, it helps students deal with the everyday stress of balancing coursework and social life. Additionally, pets can provide a sense of purpose, responsibility, and routine that college students often seek. Pets can make students feel less lonely, help with homesickness, and provide comfort in nearly any situation. Because of their unique policy, Eckerd College was featured on Animal Planet’s “Must Love Cats”.


Watch the Eckerd College program on Animal Planet


While most colleges still do not allow pets (other than fish), many have begun using therapy animals to help students deal with stress. For example, McDaniel College in Maryland is one of many schools that brings in therapy dogs during final exams. This program has become enormously popular since its initial launch. Students explain that spending time with dogs melts their stress away and allows them to take time to relax, talk to friends, and clear their brains for a few minutes. This process makes a huge difference to students during their exam period.


After experiencing the success of therapy dogs programs during finals, McDaniel and other colleges have begun expanding their programs further, providing therapy dogs for first-year students during their adjustment to college life. It has become easier for schools to schedule dogs due to the advent of organizations that make therapy dogs available for college visits. The low cost of these programs allows colleges to provide them to their students frequently. The American Kennel Club provides a great informational page on therapy dogs.


More schools are finding that therapy animals can provide increased happiness, reduced stress, and even lowered blood pressure. At Yale’s Law Library, students can check out a therapy dog named Monty for 30-minute sessions. Other schools, such as the University of Connecticut, are expanding their programs to include cats. At the Rochester Institute of Technology, therapy dogs are so popular that they recently became a weekly event that students attend every Friday.



Information on the ten best pet therapy programs


Therapy programs can benefit animals as well as people. For many dogs, the chance to see exciting new people, smells, and places can be extremely beneficial. Dogs love the attention that they get from students. Therapy dogs are often retired from other service jobs or may be rescues. For example, some greyhound therapy dogs are retired racing dogs that get to spend their latter days being pet and played with. Not a bad gig for retirement!


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Animals in Space


We all know that Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon, but can you name the first animal to enter orbit in outer space? A monkey, a chimpanzee, or other primate? No, it was actually a humble dog named Laika. Laika started life as a stray dog on the streets of Moscow. She was picked up just over a week before the first animal-inhabited rocket was set to launch. Because of her small size and calm demeanor, Laika was chosen as the perfect cosmonaut to ride in Sputnik 2. Laika’s noble mission was to test the safety of space travel; however, her journey sparked controversy worldwide. Because technology had not advanced to the point of creating a return trip, Laika’s mission was destined to end in death. However, Laika’s mission undeniably advanced our understanding of life and travel in space. One soviet official stated, “This has been done not for the sake of cruelty but for the benefit of humanity.”


Laika’s mission was just the beginning of animals’ role in space exploration. A few years after Laika’s death, the first astronaut chimpanzee was launched into space. Ham the chimp was part of the United States’ space program. His mission was unique compared to earlier animal space programs. Ham wasn’t just a passenger, he had a task to complete during his flight. His training started when he was three years old; Ham was trained to push a lever within five seconds of seeing a flashing blue light. His mission was to prove that tasks such as pushing a lever could be performed in space. The results of his flight contributed directly to the mission Alan Shepard made on May 5, 1961 aboard Freedom 7. Unlike Laika, Ham made a successful return trip home and went on to live for 17 more years in the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.


Many animals like Laika and Ham have been used in space programs. At first, most animals were sent into outer space to test the survivability of spaceflight. Later, as science developed, animals were used to determine how aspects of life in space, such as radiation and weightlessness, might affect the animals’ biology. In one recent experiment Russia sent five geckos into space to determine whether they could reproduce in microgravity. This experiment gained a great deal of media coverage, even appearing on The Colbert Report, when the geckos temporarily lost connection with the Russian space agency.


Animals in space are now used primarily to test the risks associated with spaceflight, including changes in bone, muscle, immunology, microbiology, neuroscience, nutrition, metabolism and the cardiovascular system. The most common animals sent into space today, in addition to rodents and nonhuman primates, are snails, spiders, fish, turtles, and amphibians. For example, NASA launched a space shuttle in July 2011 that included mice from the Pennsylvania State University. The mice remained in space for two weeks, and upon return, their bone density was compared to control mice that never left Earth. This experiment shed light upon the effects of weightlessness on the ability of bone marrow stem cells to build bone, as well as the mechanism of bone loss that results from prolonged bed-rest and aging.

The function of animals in space has evolved drastically over time, from paving the way for human travel to piloting their own experiments. While Laika’s mission was merely to discover the challenges of traveling to space, animals today overcome those challenges to bring back new research that provides benefits to people and nonhuman animals alike.


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