"Several years ago, Christian Rutz started to wonder whether he was giving his
crows enough credit. Rutz, a biologist at the University of St. Andrews in
Scotland, and his team were capturing wild New Caledonian crows and challenging
them with puzzles made from natural materials before releasing them again. In
one test, birds faced a log drilled with holes that contained hidden food, and
could get the food out by bending a plant stem into a hook. If a bird didn’t
try within 90 minutes, the researchers removed it from the dataset.
But, Rutz says, he soon began to realize he was not, in fact, studying the
skills of New Caledonian crows. He was studying the skills of only a subset of
New Caledonian crows that quickly approached a weird log they’d never seen
before—maybe because they were especially brave, or reckless.
The team changed their protocol. They began giving the more hesitant birds an
extra day or two to get used to their surroundings, then trying the puzzle
again. “It turns out that many of these retested birds suddenly start
engaging,” Rutz says. “They just needed a little bit of extra time.”
Scientists are increasingly realizing that animals, like people, are
individuals. They have distinct tendencies, habits, and life experiences that
may affect how they perform in an experiment. That means, some researchers
argue, that much published research on animal behavior may be biased. Studies
claiming to show something about a species as a whole—that green sea turtles
migrate a certain distance, say, or how chaffinches respond to the song of a
rival—may say more about individual animals that were captured or housed in a
certain way, or that share certain genetic features. That’s a problem for
researchers who seek to understand how animals sense their environments, gain
new knowledge, and live their lives."
Via Muse, who wrote "Oh! Fascinating!"
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*** Xanni ***
Chief Scientist, Xanadu
Partner, Glass Wings
Manager, Serious Cybernetics