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Animal behaviour – instinct or learned?

Posted in Animals, Biology, Psychology on Friday, 22 July 2011

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This edited article about animal behaviour originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 992 published on 14 March 1981.

Swan, picture, image, illustration

Cygnets learn through imprintings, which is by imitating movement as they follow the mother swan. Picture by J Chalkley

It was a great achievement when, probably in your second year, you stood upright and hesitantly took your first few steps. You had been trying to walk for several months. You learned how to crawl and use your complicated system of muscles. Finally came the most difficult lesson of all, standing on two feet and walking.

However, walking comes more quickly to members of the animal kingdom. A few minutes after a foal is born, the frail little creature makes a few jerky movements, staggers up on its four spindly legs and then walks almost perfectly. The foal has not been taught to walk, but has done so by instinct.

Biologists are not certain how animal instincts – or built-in skills – are acquired. Experiments have proved that complicated actions can be learnt by animals in a comparatively short time. Trained animals performing tricks in circuses are familiar sights. Your own dog will learn to obey orders and a trained dog can become an invaluable guide and companion for a blind person.

Other creatures, whose intelligence we have grossly underestimated, can also learn to carry out actions which they might not have otherwise performed. An earthworm, for example, is an amazing creature. It has five pairs of hearts, a tiny brain and the senses of smell and taste. Although it has no eyes, it appears to be aware of light; and it can feel the vibrations of sound.

Scientists found a way of causing a worm to travel in a chosen direction when a light is flashed. Whenever the light flashed and the worm travelled in the selected direction it was rewarded with food. Soon it learned to obey the light and travel in the direction designated without receiving food as an inducement.

Animals can also benefit from experience. When faced with a problem, they can often find ways of solving it. An octopus was observed by a diver trying to open a giant clam with its tentacles. After a while, the octopus swam away and returned with a long, sharp rock clasped in one tentacle. In a few minutes, it had managed to prise open the clam with this.

A chicken was shown a long line of grains of corn resting on cardboard. Every second grain had been glued in position. By trial and error, the chicken found what had been done and subsequently pecked at the grains which were not stuck down, and ignored the others.

Scientists have found that in lower animals, such as the fowl, there are critical ages during which learning is quick and permanent. This is called imprinting. An example of this is the attraction a baby chick or gosling experiences towards moving things, such as humans or dogs. It follows these about as it would its mother.

Much of what an animal learns is acquired through trial and error. This, in addition to all the other ways in which it learns how to exist successfully in the environment in which it finds itself, is a fascinating and never-ending source of study.

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