Why I Should Be a Behavioral Biologist

I was watching Discovery Channel and a show called Sci-Trek came on.

They were highlighting experiments that aimed to prove or disprove the theory that animals think. It held my attention for about 20 minutes but I found that I was exhibiting some of the same traits as these researchers on TV!

One scientist who studies dolphins, and has been for 30 years, was designing an experiment to see if the highly social dolphins were, or could become, self-aware. What brilliant, high-tech experiment did they come up with? They put a mirror in the tank.

The experts say in experiments in which intelligent animals and mirrors were involved, that the animals exhibited three stages of behavior:

1. Thinking the image is another animal of the same species and showing curiosity/aggression.

2. Testing the image of themselves by moving and twirling to see how the image responds. In this stage the animals tested were starting to “get it”.

3. Understanding that the image is indeed them and starting to use the mirror to look at parts of their body they could not ordinarily see without the mirror. This part is critical because it shows that the animals are using the mirror as a tool to better or entertain themselves.

Pretty nifty experiment, I’d say. However, I too independently came up with a similar experiment. To be honest it was not packaged so much as an experiment but you can still reach a conclusion from the data, so, close enough.

When we first got our kitties, we immediately put them in front of mirrors to see what they would do. We were hoping for something like this:

What we got was little more than a yawn-I-know-I’m-beautiful-now-go-away reaction. Conclusion: our cats aren’t as smart as dolphins or chimpanzees but they can be very sneaky.

The other experiment I watched featured a researcher studying some sort of monkey. The question posed was, “are these monkeys smart enough to be deceptive”? Now think about that for just a second. My reaction was something along the lines of, “well, duh”.

Nor do I need some fancy experiment involving two volunteers, one standing while facing a monkey treat and the other with his back to the treat. The point of the experiment was to show that the monkey always went for the treat that was behind the volunteer’s back, thus showing that these sly monkeys do possess a guileful gene.

I live this experiment every day; Lía, our fat cat, always takes Araña’s food. Of course she always does it when we’re not looking. And one other cunning trick she learned is to quietly take one kibble of food away from Araña’s dish and on to a soft surface so as not to raise suspicion. All this from a cat who holds the mirror as she does the rest of the world: in contempt.

The dolphins, chimpanzees and elephants have their self-awareness skills, the monkeys and my cat are clever, and I have the behavioral biologist gene. Too bad I didn’t realize it sooner.

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