• Question: can you change an animals behavior a lot?

    Asked by flumpington24 to Claire, Joanna, Kapila, Renata, Suzanne on 24 Jun 2013.
    • Photo: Suzanne Harvey

      Suzanne Harvey answered on 24 Jun 2013:

      I think if you are trying to change an animal’s behaviour a lot you can, but for my research that is something we really try to avoid. We’re trying to learn about how the baboons behave in the wild, so we don’t want to see any effects of human interactions with them!

      Other types of language studies have focussed on training primates to communicate with humans though, which changes their natural behaviour a lot. A gorilla once learnt 2000 words of sign language, but we don’t do these studies any more because they aren’t good for the animals and we can learn more from their natural behaviour.

    • Photo: Joanna Bryson

      Joanna Bryson answered on 24 Jun 2013:

      This depends by what you mean and how you want to change the behaviour. In the simplest case, if you kill an animal, all of it’s behaviour goes away! You can’t teach a cow to fly. But humans are animals and we have an incredibly complicated behaviour called language. Different languages require you to speak very differently — it’s not just like things have different names. In some languages like Turkish there are hardly even words separate from sentences — you glue sentences together from very small chunks, smaller than what English people would expect a word to be.

      How much you can expect animals to change their behaviour is one of the big questions of animal behaviour. Animals that can change their behaviour a lot because of learning are called intelligent, but we are still studying why this is different in different animals. Not just *how* it is different (which is also interesting), and not just where it comes from (like brains), but also why animals of all different intelligence can all live in the same jungle, and none of them “wins” — gets to have all the food & therefore all the babies. (That’s a basic kind of winning scientists are good at measuring, but life is actually more complicated than just that whoever has the most babies wins. But maybe I have made this answer too long already!)

    • Photo: Claire El Mouden

      Claire El Mouden answered on 25 Jun 2013:

      Well yes, you can train many animals to do things, but there are always limits. Scientists try to avoid changing the Behaviour, because we want to understand how they are when we are not present.