The study of animal behavior requires careful attention to subtle assumptions and sources of bias. One particularly interesting example of this is how biases are built into our language. Let’s take male and female birds sitting close together.
Back when the term “pair bond” was applied to this behavior, scientists though that most birds were monogamous partners that stayed together for multiple years. So, this term conjures up a nice notion of ‘devoted couples spending time together being intimate’. The problem is that this leads us to think we know the function of a behavior, when often we really don’t. It leads to a bias in how we view a behavior. Read more
In Berlin in a courtyard surrounded by high apartment buildings in the summer of 1904, there is a man and his horse. The man is Herr von Osten who taught mathematics to grade school children. His horse is Hans and the two are obviously very close and von Osten is very gentle with his horse. Herr von Osten asks Hans questions, usually mathematical ones, and the horse answers by tapping out his right foot on the ground. A shake of the head is zero. When the answer is large, Hans taps quickly, when the answer is small he taps slowly, as though he knew the answer in advance. Read more
When considering animal behavior, it’s important to think about and understand how animals perceive their environment. Most people observe behavior and immediately think they understand what the animals are doing. This comes from the constant necessity of having to interpret human behavior. Most people think they know what an animal is thinking and what it is responding to. But animals live in remarkably different sensory and experiential worlds from humans, i.e. they have a different Umwelt. Read more
Animals are always performing behaviors! Even these sleeping ducks are behaving. Notice the position of their heads: why are they tucked in like that? Observe the alignment of their bodies: to what might they be orienting? See how the duck on the left has one eye open and one shut – that’s weird?!? It turns out that, amazingly, in ducks the two brain hemispheres take turns sleeping. So the eye controlled by the sleeping side of the brain droops shut, while the other eye stays open scanning for predators (Rattenborg et al. 1997, Nature 397). This unihemispheric slow wave sleep can even occur when birds are migrating, and has been discovered in many other avian species, and in marine mammals. This amazing phenomenon would never have been discovered if people dismissed sleeping ducks as “not behaving”!
“Look at these cute dogs cuddling together. They must really love each other!”
We often make assumptions about behavior when we shouldn’t. Humans love to give other animals human qualities (i.e., anthropomorphism). This is fine when we’re just being silly, but we also have a tendency to do this without realizing what we are doing. Read more