30 March 2010

Dogs can talk! "When I picked up my dog Ruby in Long Island nearly seven years ago, I was surprised to discover that she talks like a human."

2008-STILWELL-B-0053-half.jpg When I picked up my dog Ruby in Long Island nearly seven years ago, I was surprised to discover that she talks like a human. When I ask her a question (Are you hungry? Do you want to eat dinner? Are you going to bed?), she looks me in the eye, nods her head, and opens her mouth in agreement. For years I tried to figure out the reason for her mysterious behavior — was it genetic? — by trying to track down her parents or siblings, but that search only resulted in some phone calls with sympathetic and sometimes suspicious miniature pinscher breeders who told me I should just give up. It finally dawned on me last week to ask an animal behavior expert. So I pinged Victoria Stilwell, who hosts the hilariously informative dog training show It's Me or the Dog on Animal Planet. Here, Stilwell explains why Ruby talks, why dogs aren't like humans, and how dog training techniques can be applied to tame unruly children.

Six random dog questions for It's Me or the Dog host Victoria Stilwell

28 March 2010

Research indicates that great apes show a capability that in humans makes possible true wisdom: they know they could be wrong

Great apes know they could be wrong

Study suggests non-human animals also have metacognitive abilities -- they know about what they have seen

IMAGE: Shown here is the basic setup of the "checking inside the tubes " task.

Click here for more information.
Great apes – orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas – realize that they can be wrong when making choices, according to Dr. Josep Call from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Dr. Call's study was just published online in Springer's journal, Animal Cognition.

In a series of three experiments, seven gorillas, eight chimpanzees, four bonobos and seven orangutans, from the Wolfgang Köhler Research Center at the Leipzig Zoo in Germany, were presented with two hollow tubes, one baited with a food reward, the other not. The apes were then observed as they tried to find the reward.

In the first experiment, the apes were prevented from watching the baiting but the tubes were shaken to give them auditory information about the reward's location instead. Dr. Call wanted to see if when the apes were prevented from acquiring visual information, but offered auditory cues instead, they would be able to use the auditory information to reduce their reliance on visual searching.
In the second experiment, the apes were shown the location where the food was hidden and then at variable time delays encouraged to retrieve it. The purpose of this experiment was to see if forgetting the location would lead to the apes looking harder for it.
In the last experiment, the researcher compared the apes' response between visible and hidden baiting conditions, when the quality of the food reward varied. The author hypothesized that the apes would check more often when a high quality reward was at stake, irrespective of whether or not they had seen where it was placed.

Although the apes retrieved the reward very accurately when they had watched the baiting, Dr. Call found that they were more likely to check inside the tube before choosing when high stakes were involved, or after a longer period of time had elapsed between the baiting and the retrieval of the reward. In contrast, when the apes were provided with auditory information about the food's location, they reduced the amount of checking before choosing. According to Dr. Call, taken together, these findings show that the apes were aware that they could be wrong when choosing.

Dr. Call concludes: "The current results indicate that the looking response appears to be a function of at least three factors: the cost of looking inside the tube, the value of the reward and the state of the information. The combination of these three factors creates an information processing system that possesses complexity, flexibility and control, three of the features of metacognition*. These findings suggest that nonhuman animals may possess some metacognitive abilities, too."
*Metacognition: cognition about cognition, or knowing about knowing.
1. Call J (2010). Do apes know that they could be wrong? Animal Cognition DOI 10.1007/s10071-010-0317-x

02 March 2010

"Can animals talk to other animals?" Yes, obviously.

"Can animals talk to other animals?" Asks Maggie Koerth-Baker on BoingBoing.net.  "This question—from an Anon's 6-year-old cousin—is familiar to anyone who's ever been caught up in the poignant friendship of a cartoon fox and a cartoon hound. Obviously, their real-life equivalents aren't sitting down to chat, vocally, about Yeats over a nice cup of tea. But if you drop the human pretension, and start thinking of communication as a simple exchange of information, you'll see cross-species conversations happening, experts say.…We humans tend to think of communication as solely about formal language—preferably spoken. Instead, animals use things like movement, posture and even pee—as well as sounds—to share concepts like, "I want to play," or messages like, "There's food over here." As long it makes sense, communication has happened."