The Hen Whisperer

10 08 2017

Summer student Anna Garland has done a great job these last couple of months training 12 hens (half from control environments, half from enriched) to learn that a white lidded dish meant mealworms (so, they should flip it for a treat), but a black-lidded dish would, if touched, trigger a nasty airpuff.  The hens were trained in a box, and monitored by video, with the dishes being slid in via a slot, all designed to avoid Clever Hans effects. Most hens reached criterion in under 5 days (with around 20 trials a day), making our previous failures with mice and mink look even more pathetic. Some also developed fascinating superstitious responses to the black dish, retreating to a corner, facing away from it or even freezing stock still, as if to avoid being even tempted to touch it.

Once trained, the real aim of the work could start: to present them with intermediate dishes — Shades of Grey (couldn’t resist it) — to see whether they’d be “optimistic” and flip them or “pessimistic” (avoiding them), and in turn whether this judgement bias would be affected by housing. Because we already know our enriched hens are in positive states thanks to the resources they have, a housing effect in the expected direction would validate this novel judgment bias task for poultry (Misha’s Bristol attempts being another noble failure).

Though a bit too early to peek, as Misha another 12 hens to go, Anna had a to make a poster for her summer research course, which forced us to analyse the data. And so far there is a trend, with enriched birds tending to positive-skewed biases….

1Garland Final Presentation

A cornucopia for mice

26 07 2017

20170723_124406This is what Lindsey and Kelsy have been feeding mice this past week:

thyme, turmeric, parsley, anise, marjoram, clove, cumin, ginger, coriander, mint, oregano, sage, onion, garlic, nutmeg, basil, mustard, cocoa, cinnamon, and rosemary.

But why? Sensory enrichment? Nope: to create some mice who regularly smell of novel food which is then made available to their cagemates (who then eat it, helped by social learning), and other mice who merely smell of novel food (but no-one else gets a taste).

Lindsey’s doing this to try and find out whether the former mice, the ‘reliable demonstrators’, end up being preferred because they become associated with treats. If yes, then social learning might be helping to create social relationships within mouse colonies.

Kinder Scientific? Blunder Scientific.

24 07 2017

This error message should have been my first warning, when I emailed Kinder Scientific for help at the end of March. It was the truth: support is not really to be found at this company.

Screenshot 2017-07-24 11.38.55


When I finally tracked down someone to talk to, I should have heeded the second warning: twice we failed to connect by phone because she did not understand time zones.

But I already had startle equipment purchased a long time ago from Kinder, and wanted to upgrade it for Emma (and then I needed it mending, too, as it started to malfunction). I was *trapped*.

Over the next few months (during which Emma’s mice aged and lost their hearing: the very thing we had wanted to assess), Kinder would take 4 weeks to answer my original question about retrofitting an airpuff facility to my tone-only boxes (and send the answer to the wrong person at UoG, so I didn’t see it for another month); send us the wrong dimension copper tubes for the new airpuff facility; resend us new tubes but accidentally have Fedex pick up the wrong parcel, so that the pipes took yet more days to arrive; argue with us when these tubes didn’t work either (they leaked at the connectors); and send us air regulators that didn’t function properly.


We were only saved from insanity and despair by a great plumber from local company Jim L, who was a whizz with solder, and also spotted and corrected the misassembled air regulators.

It wasn’t all bad. Kinder didn’t charge us for the repair, and they did send us this mug (which made Emma and I weep bitter tears of laughter; ah yes, if only we could actually use their equipment to GET data). Technical expert Kolby Severns was also a great help to Emma, always willing to Skype.

But would I buy equipment from them again? Never, ever in a million years.



Congratulations to Lauren!

11 07 2017

Lauren has now surveyed every mink farm in Ontario that uses enrichments!!!

Conscious awareness of cues helps us learn certain types of task

5 07 2017

Nice article in New Scientist on a paper in press from Chris Frith’s lab:

Screenshot 2017-07-05 15.02.09


Postcard from Oregon

4 07 2017

Andrea spent last week on the west coast, first in Portland visiting Kris Coleman and Daniel Gottlieb (as well as having dinner with my favourite, well possibly my only, academic grandson Brett Dufour), before flying to Davis to liaise with co-advisor Brenda McCowan (and also have lunch with Jamie at nearby Palo Alto).

The aim? To start designing her PhD project on rhesus macaque welfare, which has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of our UFAW RTS grant. And I suspect the prospect of analysing data from over 4000 animals is making her salivate…

Screenshot 2017-07-04 17.32.35

Aimee’s first results!

21 06 2017

After 4 days of scanning, Aimee was ready to see if our mice are stable in the traits we’re interested in: stereotypic behaviour and “still but awake” (where mice just stand still, doing nothing; it’s weirder than it sounds).

Yes! — the % visible scans in each behaviour on Days 1 plus 3 covaried beautifully with the equivalent values for Days 2 plus 4 (odd/even day comparisons we always do as a data quality check).

So, let her first real experiment begin!