By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
A seal that eluded rescue is no longer a fugitive. The four-year-old male eluded rescue attempts only to waddle his way to the local police station. While surely dumb luck, the surrendering seal recalls animal intelligence.
Authorities in Beverly, Massachusetts, were unable to capture and rescue a gray seal that had likely wandered into a local pond from the sea via a river and drainage pipes. Fortunately, the curious carnivore made his way to a police station, later in the month, after leaving the pond and crossing a parking lot to get there. He has since been transferred to a Connecticut aquarium for a medical evaluation and eventual return to the sea.
The station’s proximity to the pond, as well as sheer luck, doubtlessly brought the seal’s adventure to its fitting end. However, the ability of many species to cognitively process information is often nothing short of incredible. In his video series Zoology: Understanding the Animal World, Dr. Donald E. Moore III, director of the Oregon Zoo, delves deep into how animals learn.
Try, Try Again—Good Boy!
“Trial and error is a relatively simple kind of learning that we not only perform ourselves, but can observe in animals,” Dr. Moore said. “Trial and error simply requires repeated, different attempts at a task over a certain amount of time. You or the animal then associate behaviors with the consequences they produce. Pleasant consequences tend to reinforce and increase behaviors.”
For example, when a dog is asked to sit, and does so, and is then rewarded with a treat, that behavior is more likely to be repeated in expectation of a reward, as any dog owner knows. According to Dr. Moore, animals like ospreys also learn this without human involvement, acquiring skills like diving for fish through slightly different repeated attempts.
Rodents tested in mazes are often being gauged on trial and error learning as well.
“Through more and more sophisticated versions of this simple experiment, it has been shown that mice can use internal cues—like the scent of food—and external cues—like landmarks—to increase their probabilities of finding food in mazes over time,” Dr. Moore said. “This is called spatial learning, the acquisition and later use of knowledge about the spatial environment.”
Dr. Moore also said that animals with higher cognitive abilities can not only learn through trial and error but also by watching the behavior of adults within their own species. This practice is called social learning. Primates have long been seen doing this and pet owners may have seen mother cats or dogs teach their young how to climb stairs. However, social learning extends to fish, reptiles, and birds, too.
“If a bird builds its nest for the first time and the nest is the same as every other first-time builder’s, this may be an innate behavior,” he said. “But if we see variance in the use of materials, in nest location, and height among first-time builders, then nest building probably involves some learned behaviors.”
Social birds such as zebra finches often exhibit social learning. First-time nest builders frequently copy their choice of nest materials from other and more mature birds, even if they’re not immediately related. The fact that they’re not related, Dr. Moore said, is crucial, because it shows that nest-building isn’t divided by families but by social groups.
Zoology: Understanding the Animal World is now available to stream on Wondrium.