It's 2013, and laboratory pigeons are demanding an upgrade. Well, maybe they aren't demanding so much as continuing to do whatever tasks get them their pigeon pellets. Nevertheless, switching from analog to digital testing could mean more rigorous studies, better statistics, and a chance for previously ignored animals to try their paws at cognition research.
One of the classic cognitive tests that psychologists like to give animals involves two or more strings. At the far end of one string, there's a treat. The animal has to figure out that tugging on the near end of this string will gradually bring the reward close enough to eat.
How classic is the string test? In a recent Animal Cognition paper, Edward Wasserman of the University of Iowa and his coauthors list 74 different papers involving this experiment. Animals subjected to string-pulling tasks have includes apes, monkeys, birds, cats, rats, and Asian elephants. The experiments have been limited, though, to animals that can grasp and pull on a string or rope. Another constraint is the time it takes an experimenter to physically set up the strings and refill the food dishes over and over again.
Wasserman and his colleagues used a pigeon focus group to try out a new kind of string test with no string at all. The whole thing took place on a touchscreen, which you can see above. When pigeons pecked at the square on the near end of a "string," the "dish" on the other end moved a little closer. One dish was an empty black box; the other was a photo of pigeon feed. When a pigeon reeled the food dish all the way in, a tasty (non-virtual) pellet dropped out of a dispenser.
The four pigeons in the study quickly got the gist of things, learning to peck the end of the string attached to the food. They started off with simple tasks, in which the strings were short and didn't cross over each other. Then the strings got longer, appeared at various angles, and eventually crossed. These tasks were increasingly challenging to the pigeons. But even for the hardest tasks, the first string they pecked was usually the correct one.
Unlike in a real string test, there was no pulling—no physical weight of food to focus on dragging closer. Still, Wasserman thinks the touchscreen experiment is an accurate substitute for the real thing. In videos like this one, you can see the pigeons bobbing their heads along the strings as they work, seeming to understand the logic of the puzzle. The authors compare the experiment to a game of Angry Birds, which also simulates real physics (albeit with slingshotted cartoon animals).
Also unlike a real string test, the researchers were able to instantly change the length or placement of the strings. They put their pigeons through tens of thousands of trials without much trouble. All of this means better statistical analyses and more reliable results are possible. Using a touchscreen "allows us to conduct experiments with much greater rigor than would otherwise be the case," Wasserman says.
The new method could also let researchers try this kind of testing on any animal that can work a touchscreen, Wasserman says—"even those without dextrous appendages." For example, fish. He also suggests mammals such as dogs, horses, or cows, as well as birds that can't use their claws like hands. One aquarium has already demonstrated that its penguins can play an iPad game. From the aquarium's video, though, it's unclear whether the penguin is truly enjoying the app for cats, or if trying to nab an onscreen mouse is turning it into an Angry Bird. Wasserman, E., Nagasaka, Y., Castro, L., & Brzykcy, S. (2013). Pigeons learn virtual patterned-string problems in a computerized touch screen environment Animal Cognition DOI: 10.1007/s10071-013-0608-0 Image: Wasserman et al.