Touchscreen test reveals new findings on intelligence of birds

 

Birds such as parrots and crows have been using touchscreen technology as part of an international research study examining whether the ways in which animals respond to new things influences how eager they are to explore.
The new research, involving scientists from across Europe, looks at how a number of factors affect the speed and frequency with which the birds investigate new objects that they have never seen before.The study was carried out by researchers from the Messerli Research Institute (University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna) and the University of Vienna in Austria, the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany and University of Lincoln, UK.It has generally been assumed that neophobic species (species that do not like new things) have a tendency to explore less than those that do (referred to as neophilic). For example, kea parrots in New Zealand have been known to destroy cars because they are so interested in new things.The research results reveal that the neotic style of a bird (how neophobic or neophilic an animal is) has an impact on when they choose to explore new objects, but not on their level of exploration. Those who are more neophobic carry out the same amount of exploration, but simply make the approach much later. The results also show that juvenile animals explore more quickly than adults do.

Significantly, the scientists found that individual differences and characteristics seem to be much more important than species-level differences in determining how eager a bird is to explore. This suggests that neotic style is not, as is frequently assumed, a result of the challenges faced by an entire species, but instead appears to differ depending on the individual bird.

As part of the investigation, the parrots and crows were introduced to a touchscreen which revealed two different coloured shapes on a regular basis, and they were trained to understand that choosing one of the shapes (by pecking it) could result in a food reward. The researchers showed each bird 16 pairs of shapes, and throughout the task introduced a few novel stimuli that they had never seen before. The researchers measured how quickly they responded to the new shapes, and at which point in the test they chose to investigate them.

A video of Sven the Eclectus parrot working the touchscreen is available to view on YouTube.

Dr Anna Wilkinson, a specialist in animal cognition from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln, explained: “Rather than its species, we found that individual differences have a significant impact upon how quickly a bird begins to explore. This is likely to be due to a combination of the bird’s age, its individual position in the social hierarchy, and its own previous experiences.”

The birds that featured in the study were from nine different species of parrots and corvids – also known as the crow family. They were selected to represent different ecological backgrounds so that factors such as the likelihood of pressure from predators could also be taken into account. For example, species originating from islands such as Goffin’s cockatoos and vasa parrots are less likely to face pressure from predators than those such as ravens, jackdaws and African grey parrots, which are much more widely distributed.

As part of the study, researchers worked with Eclectus parrots from the Lincolnshire Wildlife Park to assess their reactions.

The first author of the study, Dr Mark O’Hara from the Messerli Research Institute and the University of Vienna, said: “Our findings allow for a more accurate interpretation of behaviour and the processes which control responses to changes in the environment.”

The full paper, The temporal dependence of exploration on noetic style in birds, is published in Scientific Reports and is available to read online.

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What makes a perfect match when it comes to your personality and your pets?

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A well-known proverb concludes that “dogs look like their owners” but an intriguing new research study will now explore whether pet owners also share their personality with their canine companions.

The research, which will take place at the University of Lincoln, UK, will investigate the role of different personality traits in the formation of a successful bond between a pet owner and their dog and will explore whether they share similar characteristics.

Conducted by Afrodite Agorastou, a postgraduate student on the MSc of Clinical Animal Behaviour programme in the University of Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences, the new study aims to discover what makes the best personality combinations when it comes to owners and their dogs.

Afrodite said: “We know that some dog owners wonder why others seem to have a perfectly harmonious relationship with their pets, while they face a regular struggle to train and bond with their dog. Even with professional dog training we know that some owners still come up against difficulties and face frustration so I am going to investigate whether other factors – such as personality – affect this relationship.

“We are inviting dog owners to take part in a short survey which will provide us with details about their own personality as well as their pet’s. It will be interesting to discover whether or not harmonious owner-pet relationships are thanks to ‘matching personalities’, and if so whether it might be possible for people to take this into account when considering taking on a pet dog in the future.”

Afrodite is currently collecting data and will begin analysing the results later this year. Her survey is now live and all dog owners are invited to take part online:

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/HOMBREDAD

Afrodite can be contacted via email: afrodite_gr@hotmail.com

Pets and their therapeutic effects

A prestigious Veterinary journal has published a feature in which Professor Daniel Mills and Dr Sophie Hall discuss the therapeutic effects of companion animals.

Professor Mills, from the University of Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences, and Dr Hall, who will be joining the team on a project related to pet dogs and families with autistic children, also focus on the influence of pets on childhood development in the article for Veterinary Record.

Despite a growing body of evidence indicating many benefits surrounding the relationship between people and pets, the authors suggest even more novel interventions using companion animals are possible in preventative healthcare.

They conclude: “Animal companionship is potentially more cost-effective and socially acceptable than technological solutions. Companion animals should not be considered a luxury or unnecessary indulgence, but rather, when cared for appropriately, they should be seen as valuable contributors to human health and wellbeing and, as a result, society and the broader economy.”

Pets are often used to support people, but there are few controlled investigations into the effects of human-animal companionship in medical settings, and this is an area that researchers are keen to develop further at the University following Dr Hall’s appointment.

Along with reducing overt emotional responses such as anxiety, there is evidence to suggest that animal companionship can be highly influential in reducing a sense of isolation.

The constant companionship of an animal has been shown to reduce feelings of loneliness in elderly care home residents. And a further study with patients in palliative care showed that the presence of a dog, cat or rabbit improved the mood of patients. Similar mood changes have also been observed in children with autism and Alzheimer’s patients.

The team is now engaged in a long term follow-up of their earlier controlled study, in conjunction with the Parents Autism Workshops and Support Network, examining the effects of pet dog ownership on UK families with an autistic child. Results from the initial study are due to be reported soon in the scientific press. Uniquely, this has examined the effects on the child, primary carer and wider family, since it is hypothesised that all of these might benefit from the companionship provided by a dog.

The positive effects of animals in reducing negative emotions and increasing positive emotions may improve not only quality of life but can also help with the development of effective interventions.

Previous research in the field of human health and medical psychology has provided evidence to suggest that dog and cat owners have better psychological and physical health than non-owners. Dog owners are also reported to recover more quickly after serious mental and physical illness, and even make fewer visits to their doctor. All of these effects might have a significant impact on NHS costs at a time when government is looking for cost savings,

The authors comment: “We should be curious about all the ways companion animals can potentially help us and embrace the opportunities provided by a greater appreciation of the impact of companion animals on our lives.
“It is perhaps ironic that in a world that seems to be increasingly encouraging the development of technologies to make our lives easier, an obvious answer to many of our problems may be literally staring us in the face (or sitting on our lap).”

To read the full article ‘Animal-assisted interventions: making better use of the human-animal bond’ in Veterinary Record go to http://ow.ly/uOv4I

Inspiring the next generation of scientists

A giant planetarium, mock crime scene investigation, a special lecture by a TV wildlife expert and the chance to get up close with some reptiles are just some of the activities planned by the University of Lincoln as part of a national festival of science.

National Science and Engineering Week (NSEW) from 14th to 23rd March is a ten-day nationwide celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths, with events and activities aimed at people of all ages.

The University of Lincoln is opening its doors to the public, with a variety of activities on offer for anyone with an interest in science.

Organiser Dr Ciara Casey, from the School of Life Sciences, said: “The University of Lincoln has a world-class reputation for innovation and scientific enterprise. Our ever expanding College of Science is testament to the quality of academic research being undertaken in this area, and we are delighted to be a part of National Science and Engineering Week.”

The Polestar Planetarium offers an exciting exploration of the Cosmos, with specialist projectors creating a 360 degree, hemispherical image of the night sky and large, hi-resolution NASA images. Based in the Main Administration Building of the Brayford Campus, there will be five presentations available to book on to every day between 17th to 21st March.

TV presenter and naturalist Chris Packham will be visiting the University to host an exclusive question and answer session for students and staff, followed by a public lecture which was fully booked within hours.

An Interactive Science Zone will run from 2pm to 6pm on 19th March, with activities and stands providing a great opportunity for families and schools to explore science in a friendly atmosphere.

As part of this a crime scene tent and forensic table will enable visitors to carry out their own fingerprinting, examine real human bones and discover the life that lives in your teeth!

Also putting in an appearance is ERWIN the ‘friendly robot’ as well as live dog training sessions, animal skulls and fossils displays and interactive chemistry and ecology activities.

On 20th March come and see our red-footed tortoises for a hands-on workshop looking at how these reptiles understand the world around them.

Public lectures include the consequences of training pet dogs with electronic collars and the life and love of black grouse, the successful evolution of a group of South American lizards and how male grouse have evolved to contend with the demands of the female of their species!

Academics will also be out and about in schools, delivering master classes in Engineering, Forensic Science and Chemistry.

To book a place for the Polestar Planetarium please call 01522 837100 or e-mail events@lincoln.ac.uk

To book on or to find out more about any of the other events and activities, please contact us on 01522 835388 or e-mail ccasey@lincoln.ac.uk

For more information on when and where each activity is taking place go to http://www.lincoln.ac.uk/home/campuslife/whatson/eventsconferences/event,name,30000,en.html

A closer look at separation anxiety in dogs

Separation anxiety is an extremely common problem in dogs, sometimes resulting in the breakdown of the special bond shared by humans and their canine companions.

A study by academics at the University of Lincoln, UK, and the University of Veterinary Medicine and Pharmacy in Kosice, Slovakia, aims to improve our understanding of dogs’ behaviour in the owner’s absence.

Dog owners are being asked to complete a detailed survey to help researchers analyse the various clinical signs and situations in which problems occur.

Raquel Matos, from the University of Veterinary Medicine and Pharmacy, is conducting the research alongside the University of Lincoln’s Professor Daniel Mills.

She said: “Separation-related problems are extremely common and in some cases can lead to owners feeling they have no other option but to surrender their pet. Through this study we aim to identify the relative prevalence, severity and characteristics of the different types of emotional problems related to separation from the owner.

“Different emotional problems may have a similar presentation with superficially similar clinical signs but may have different underlying motivational and emotional factors. By taking the time to fill out this questionnaire people will be helping to improve our knowledge on this important subject, which may help us develop more effective treatments.”

Destructiveness, vocalisation such as barking and whining, and house soiling are among the most common complaints of dog owners.

It has also been established that dogs showing these problems are at a higher risk of a range of other complications.

The researchers hope to apply the findings from the survey to aid the development of more specific treatments and prevention programmes.

Dog owners are asked to take part if their animal shows any signs of depression/sadness; destructiveness; vocalisation such as whining, barking or howling; or house soiling when separated from the owner or left alone.

Please do not complete the survey if you have owned your dog for less than one month; your dog is under 12 weeks’ old; there has been a significant change in the household in the last month; or your dog previously showed any of these signs but no longer does.

Owners that wish to further collaborate are invited to send a video of the first 30 minutes after their dog is left alone at home.

To take part please visit http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/separation-related-problems_dogs