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Down on the farm

27 November 2002

Animal welfare can be improved if we better understand the needs of domestic animals. By studying their behaviour and obtaining information from the animals' point of view.

Professor Christine Nicol’s research suggests that the ability of animals to teach others may be more widespread throughout the animal kingdom than previously thought. She investigated how chickens acquire information about food, develop new skills and behaviours, and respond to mistakes made by their chicks. She found that naïve animals (observers) are able to perform new behaviours sooner, more accurately and more completely after contact with experienced animals (demonstrators). She also found that hens were able to learn faster from other hens, rather than cockerels. Although all types of chickens had pupil potential, only mother hens had the makings of good teachers, keeping order in class and responding flexibly to mistakes made by their chicks. These findings will help researchers understand how to discourage undesirable behaviour such as feather pecking.

Dr. Mike Mendl found that pigs, like humans, differ greatly in temperament. For example, some pigs do not simply rely on muscle to get to the food first, but can use subtle behaviour to outwit their competitors. For instance, if they know where food is, they learn to approach it when other pigs are not looking, which suggests that pigs can compete with each other in quite complex and ‘cerebral’ ways. The research also indicates that pigs can assess large differences in their fighting potential and use their brainpower to sort out their social status, without resorting to fighting. This work may help farmers to minimise damaging from fighting on pig farms, by using individual recognition and assessment behaviour. It may also be possible to selectively breed pigs that are naturally less aggressive.

School of Veterinary Sciences

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