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You are here: BBC > Nature > Animals > Pets > Test your pet

Test Your Pet logo The Science Behind Test Your Pet

There's a great deal of scientific knowledge behind Test Your Pet.

Teams of scientists have worked hard to produce tests that really work - so what's the science of it all about? We have the answers.


 The science behind Test Your Pet

Test Your Pet brings a bit of science into your home. In doing the Test Your Pet home tests, you're dabbling in the study of animal behaviour. In the past century animal behaviourists have discovered a great deal about what makes animals behave in the way that they do.

Animals carry out behaviours in response to situations that they come across in their environment. There are all sorts of ways in which an animal can organise a response when faced with a particular situation. Some require no "thought" at all, while others are extremely complex and only open to a few species.

The Test Your Pet home tests put your pet to the test because they examine different aspects of your pet 's intelligence. Intelligence is hard to define, but you can think of it as the ability to read a situation and organise an appropriate behaviour in response. There are four different ways to do this, so there are four different types of intelligence. They evolved in a particular order, getting more flexible and, as we would see it, "cleverer" as you go down the list. It pays to be flexible. Flexible animals are better at surviving in an unpredictable world.

 Reaction to stimuli

The simplest behaviour is one in which a single factor, known as a stimulus, is perceived in some way (seen or heard or smelt or tasted or felt) and an automatic behaviour is triggered in response.

A good example of this is when bright light falls on your eye. Within a second, your pupil will respond by shrinking so that a constant amount of light enters the eye and you're able to continue to see the world around you.

This behaviour is powered by a tiny electric circuit of nerve cells. The energy from the light is turned into electricity in your eye, and channelled along the nerve cells until it twitches the muscles in your iris and closes your pupil. You can't interfere with this circuit. It's an automatic, involuntary reaction.

 Hard-wiring

There are a whole host of reactions like this, and they are called innate or hard-wired behaviours. The circuits are laid down before birth, and you can't control them in any conscious way. Some animal behaviours that appear to require a lot of thought are actually innate behaviours.

For example, Egyptian vultures use stones to break open eggs. At first glance this looks like an example of an animal that has learnt to use a tool - one of the cleverest things that animals do. But vulture chicks hatched in isolation do the same behaviour from a young age - the behaviour is innate. When Egyptian vultures see an egg, they respond automatically by throwing stones at it, and there's no thought involved.

 Habituation - poking sea slugs

A slightly cleverer version of this hard-wired system is one in which the response can be switched off if there's no advantage in doing it. This is called habituation, and it was first demonstrated in the simple sea slug.

Sea slugs have floppy, vulnerable gills that they retract with the slightest touch. But if they are poked repeatedly, and nothing bad happens, they switch off the retraction behaviour because it's a waste of energy.

 Learning and Pavlov's dogs

A breakthrough happened when memory evolved. In essence, memory is the ability of a nervous system to grow new connections. This means that an individual animal could learn from their experiences by adjusting or adding to its hard-wiring.

The simplest learning is when animals swap one stimulus for another. A Russian researcher, Ivan Pavlov did a famous experiment with a dog in which the dog came to associate the ringing of a bell with the arrival of food. In the end the sound of the bell alone was enough to bring about a behavioural response - the dog began drooling. Though Pavlov didn't know it at the time, he had encouraged new connections to grow in the dog's brain that linked perception of the bell with the production of saliva.

It sounds hideous, but this sort of learning happens all the time in the wild. It makes sense for an animal to be able to learn new cues within the environment that tend to lead to food.

 If at first you don't succeed...

There's also a much smarter type of learning known as trial and error learning. Here, when an animal perceives a situation it responds by trying out a bunch of different behaviours. When one leads to a reward or punishment, it associates the reward or punishment with the behaviour. The next time it perceives the same situation, it chooses the successful behaviour first.

This trial and error learning is at the heart of all animal training. The animal learns to behave in a way that will win it a reward. It looks like "thinking", but really it's just learning to respond in a suitable way. There's a popular technique called "clicker training" in which the animal performs trained behaviours in order to hear the sound of a "click". These animals have been previously trained to associate the click sound with a reward, just as Pavlov's dog thought that the bell meant food, so they'll do anything for a "click".

There's one problem with the trial and error approach - you could pick the wrong behaviour to try out first, which at least is a waste of time and energy, and at most could lead to your early demise. If you're a social creature there's another option. You could wait and watch your mates trying various responses and copy them if they're successful. This method of learning is called "social learning". It 's quite a clever idea, and it's widespread throughout the animal kingdom.

 Problem-solving

Problem-solving is a step up from that sort of learning. Here, when faced with a situation, an animal tries out various responses that it's done before in its head. This involves firing off various nerve cell networks in the brain without doing the behaviour itself, and using a sophisticated brain "tool-kit" to predict the outcomes of their actions. Running these "what-ifs" is extremely clever and relies on a detailed understanding of the real world.

It really helps if the animal has encountered similar situations before. By referring back through a life time of memories it can draw upon the results of the behaviours it used before. Extremely bright animals are so good at problem-solving that some behaviourists think that they may also use a sort of super problem-solving which they call insight.

To use insight an animal must be in a situation it has never encountered before and be able to try out responses they've never done before in their heads before coming up with the solution. In this case they've solved a problem without referring to any of their memories. It's a sort "penny drops" type of thinking.

Experiments have been done where intelligent animals such as chimps and dolphins look like they're using insight, but you can always argue that the animals are referring back to their past experiences in some subtle way, or that the situations are triggering innate behaviours (like the Egyptian vultures) that have evolved over centuries. But one thing is certain - the more novel the problem and the solution, the cleverer the animal that succeeds.

 

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