Cognitive Ecology: A better consideration for understanding the minds of animals
The following blog information explains the learning experience during a master’s thesis and summarizes the comprehensive knowledge I have gained through reading over 147 peer reviewed scientific journal articles related to this topic. All factual sentences within this blog can be supported by scientific research, and if the link is not present it can be provided upon request.
In summer of 2015, I participated in a two-month study at an AZA accredited zoo for my Professional Science Masters in Zoo, Aquarium and Animal Shelter Management. The zoo had been significantly influenced by an article published in the journal Behavioral Processes, where authors Pilley and Reid were able to teach a dog to identify and discriminate between over 1,000 objects! Neil deGrasse Tyson breaks down the science of this canine Einstein during an episode of 60 Minutes.
The AZA accredited facility was interested in replicating the study to better understand the cognitive potential of captive wildlife. I had an incredible experience during my time at the facility, and the amount of knowledge I learned from the staff and the animals was immeasurable. I spent approximately seven weeks gaining the trust of the animal participants while training them, and an additional two weeks collecting data.
During the next academic semester, I decided to take a challenging science elective titled "Cognitive Ecology", which forever changed my perceptions of animals. There are many definitions of cognition, but the one I like the most is the process by which an organism gathers, interprets, and stores information from its surrounding environment. Just as organisms have evolved physically over time to survive within their ecosystems, they have also evolved cognitively. This is the concept of cognitive ecology and it seeks to explain how an organism’s cognition has developed to fit their role within an ecosystem. It is a way of looking at the animal mind through their perception of the world.
The opposite approach of cognitive ecology is anthropomorphism, or giving human-like characteristics to animals. As a former sanctuary care and zoo keeper intern, and a 14 year long resume of working with animals, I can very well say that I understand where this comes from. I have witnessed their emotions, their individuality, and their behavioral expressions. The error in anthropomorphism is that humans are sentient beings with the highest cognitive function in the animal kingdom, and our ecology centers around technology, development, and over consumption. You are able to read this blog that was launched over an invisible stream of communication, and projected onto a screen in front of you, hundreds of miles away. This is a demonstration of this difference and shows that our interpretation of the world around us is entirely unique to our species.
I performed my object discrimination task with two North American River Otters, a Red Panda, a Sun Bear, a Dromedary Camel, and two Anglo-Nubian Goats. Over this diverse number of animal participants, the North American River Otters where the only ones to reach the discrimination criterion (both individuals belonging to the same species).
Superficially, my results bothered me and I felt that it was inaccurate to claim that otters had won the contest. I applied my data to a logarithmic line regression, which gave a visual picture of each animal’s learning curves, represented below by the value of "R2" (Figure 1).
The Camel and the Sun Bear both had a higher learning curve in comparison to both of the River Otters, despite not discriminating. If the Camel and Sun Bear learned at a significantly higher rate, why were they unable to discriminate?
I reviewed former discrimination studies on each participating animal species, taking note of experimental design and the sensory methods that each species used for selection. I also investigated the ecology and discrimination tasks performed by animal species with similar ecological roles to the ones in my study (ex. Giant Pandas and Red Pandas are not related, but they overlap distribution and both eat bamboo).
Most other discrimination tasks allowed for 200+ trials, where my data averaged around 25 per individual. My question now became, "why in a limited amount of time were North American River Otters able to discriminate?"
Through a comprehensive review of over 147 scientific journal articles, I found a very plausible explanation for these results.
Each animal has evolved to survive within their own ecosystem both physical and cognitively. Therefore, the way we interpret (anthropomorphism) an object discrimination task many not be how the animals is interpreting it. For example,Sun bears are most active at dusk/dawn and eat fruit, so they were found to have an amazing sense of smell and poor vision. Camels have many adaptations to survive in the desert, including incredible eye sight and sense of smell. They use their lips to feel around thorny desert plants and eat the edible parts, relying on touch to survive. Red Pandas are active at night and dwell in trees, and it was found that they have a much better sense of smell opposed to vision. Nubian Goats are a domesticated species who’s evolution was influenced through selective breeding in favor of lower human avoidance and a better understand of human body language.
These findings demonstrate the differences between each animal in their unique way of information gathering and interpretation (cognition), suggesting that we were asking the animals the right question, but in the wrong way. Research on the frugivorous (eats fruit) Sun Bear suggests that this species may rely mostly on smell. Humans can only smell approximately 10 cm in front of their nose, where a bear can smell up to 20 miles away. If Sun Bears have poor eye sight and better smell, then their perception of the world will be much different than our own. Therefore, using different scents on the objects may have been a more appropriate way of asking the bear to discriminate in accordance to their cognitive ecology.
But why were otters successful!?! Lets look at the behaviors of wild otters in relationship to their ecological role. Otter’s have been shown to prefer areas of dense vegetation, despite an abundant food source. This suggests that predator avoidance behavior is very important to otters. Even while eating, they will be scanning their surroundings at all times. Sea Otters (who are also tool users) eat in the water, on their backs and River Otters launch their head back, bringing their eyes up as they consume their food. This feeding behavior is also difficult when your prey consists of animals with hard protective barriers including sea urchins, shellfish, crustaceans, and mollusks (they also eat fish). Otters must manipulate their food, and some times use tools, to break the protective barriers of their prey.
So what does the ecology of otters tell us about their ability to discriminate? Otters have shown a selection preference for objects that are larger and closer to them in underwater discrimination. The mink, a member of the otter family, were also found to prefer investigating objects up close (7.87 inches) and to use contrasting backgrounds to identify things underwater. These behaviors of close up identification and discrimination of prey underwater, and then manipulating the prey in front of them to remove the protective barriers are synonymous skills and behaviors to the object discrimination task.
So what is the biggest take away from this blog? I am not saying the animals do not have individual personalities or emotions-in fact I will firmly say that they do. What I am suggesting is that we take into consideration that the animal mind can be better understood through their cognitive ecology, of which is completely different from our own, and from each animal species. We need to respect the fact that animals are superior to us in terms of survival. They have evolved mentally and physically in response to their role in an ecosystem. This has concurrently resulted in different ways of each species gathering and interpreting information.
For a human to say that they understand the mind of a bear is unjust. If you are a person with bad vision and require a set of high prescription glasses, but could smell something from 20 miles away, then yes, I think that you are much closer to perceiving the world as a bear. But I also think that you'd be attending Charles’s Xaviers School for Gifted Youngsters. In addtion, you would have to keep in mind that as a female bear your home range goal is to claim an area with the most abundance food resources to raise your young. And, if you are a male bear, your home range goal is to claim an area with the highest number of females. These goals will also influence your perception of the world and your mind as an animal.
The animal mind is so complex, and you cannot simply claim to know everything about them until you dedicated the time to work with them and read the scientific research journals that support what we do know, and what we do not. The mind of each animal species is as unique and different as people from different cultures are. When Americans travel to Europe, they will demonstrate habits and behaviors different from that of the Europeans. There are even differences between Texans and New Yorkers. They come from different environments. I love animal behavior, but I would never claim to fully comprehend the mind of an animal. They are not dumb, but they are not anything like us. And we must respect that if we are going to continue to share this planet with them.
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