Animal characters can mess up science, but there is a solution

hermit crab
Zoom in / Even hermit crabs have individual behavior patterns — personalities, if you will. When scientists ignore the implications of such differences, they may produce flawed research.

Several years ago, Christian Rutz started to wonder if he was giving the crows enough credit. Rutz, a biologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and his team had been hunting wild New Caledonian crows and challenging them with puzzles made from natural materials before releasing them again. in one test, the birds encountered a stem drilled with holes containing hidden food, and could eject the food by bending a plant stem into a hook. If the bird did not attempt within 90 minutes, the researchers removed it from the data set.

But Rotz says he soon began to realize that he wasn’t actually being taught the skills of the New Caledonian Crows. He was studying the skills of only a subset of New Caledonian crows that quickly approached a strange record they’d never seen before – perhaps because they were particularly brave or reckless.

The team changed its protocol. They started by giving the most reluctant birds an extra day or two to get used to their surroundings, and then tried to solve the puzzle again. “It turns out that many of these retested birds suddenly start to get involved,” says Rotz. “They just needed a little extra time.”

Scientists are increasingly realizing that animals, like humans, are individuals. They have distinct tendencies, habits, and life experiences that may influence how they perform in the experiment. This means, some researchers argue, that much of the research published on animal behavior may be biased. Studies that purport to show something about a species as a whole—that green sea turtles migrate a certain distance, for example, or how shells respond to a competitor’s song—may say more about individual animals that have been captured or housed in a certain way, or that share similar traits. specific genetic. This is a problem for researchers seeking to understand how animals sense their environments, gain new knowledge, and live their lives.

“Often the samples we draw are very biased,” says Rotz. “This is something that has been in the air in the community for a long time.”

In 2020, Rutz and his colleague Michael Webster, also at the University of St Andrews, proposed a way to tackle this problem. They called him strange.

This video clip from one of Christian Rutz’s experiments shows a wild crow in New Caledonia bending a plant stem into a hook to retrieve food from a hole. Although some of the birds were reluctant to approach the material at first, Rotz realized that many of them could solve the puzzle with extra time.

Personalities aren’t just for people

Why weird”? In 2010, A.J condition In Behavioral and Brain Science suggested that people studied in much of the published psychology literature are WEIRD — drawn from Western, educated, industrialized, affluent, and democratic societies — and are “among the least represented populations one can find to generalize about humans”. Researchers may draw sweeping conclusions about the human mind when they really have studied the minds of, say, undergraduates at the University of Minnesota.

A decade later, Rutz and Webster, drawing inspiration from WEIRD, published a paper in Nature entitled ” How dangerous are your study animals?

They suggested that fellow behavior researchers consider several factors about their study animals, which they called social background, tractability and self-selection, breeding history, acclimatization and habituation, natural changes in response, genetic makeup, and experience.

“I started thinking about these kinds of biases when we were using fish-collecting net traps for experiments,” Webster says. Doubt – and then confirmed in the laboratoryThe more active stickleback fish were more likely to swim into these traps. “We’re now trying to use nets instead” to catch a variety of fish, Webster says.

This is trapability. Besides its activity level, other factors that may make an animal more catchable than its peers include a bold temperament, lack of experience or simply feeling hungry for the bait.

Other research has shown riders staying in groups of five better performance on a learning task (figuring out which hole contains food) than those in groups of only three—that’s the social background. jump spiders raised in captivity Less interested in prey of wild spiders (breeding history) and honey bees I learned better In the morning (normal changes in response). And so on and so on.

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