Animal instincts could be inherited expert knowledge

Reposted from CFACT

By David Wojick |November 24th, 2020|Environment|

In addition to studying complex human reasoning, I have been observing complex instinctive reasoning in animals for many years. Instinctive behavior is often thought of as simple, perhaps even mindless. I came to a very different conclusion, that an instinct is basically inherited expert knowledge. Instinctive behavior is often very complex, involving sophisticated concepts, expert knowledge and a lot of decision making.

So I wrote up my observations and hypotheses, in the form of a four year long series of 46 short blog articles. The blog title is Horse cognition and other critters (of which many are discussed). It runs around 30,000 words so there is lots of stuff.

My approach is one I call “robotic analysis” which means asking what a robot would have to sense, understand, know and decide in order to do what the animal does instinctively.

This does not mean the animal’s behavior is robotic, far from it. Artificial intelligence robotics tries to model intelligent behavior. For example, developing the self driving car required a lot of study on precisely what we do when we drive. Knowing the difference between a pedestrian, which can move, and a mailbox which cannot (except under extreme circumstances).

Here are snapshots of a few of the many blog articles, to give you the flavor of the findings:

The amazing cow circle. June 2015

A small herd of cows and their calves is threatened by dogs. The cows do not all face the dogs. Instead they form a defensive ring with each cow facing out. The calves go to the middle of the ring. Consider what is required. The cows have to recognize the threat as calling for a circle. They have to know how to form that circle, which is far from simple, especially since some are facing away from the dogs. The calves have to know to go to the center.

Baby behavior. May 2016

A baby bird hides under my riding mower as I approach, planning to mow. When I sit on the mower it runs out and hides under my truck. This baby knows when to hide, where to hide and how to hide. It also knows when to change hiding places. These are complex behaviors.

Instinctive learning. April 2016

A bird building a nest flies long distances to specific places to get materials. The bird must know what it wants at that point in construction and it must have already learned where the right stuff was.

Not knowing how to trotOctober 2013

Two legged critters like us can only walk forward one step at a time, but four legged folks can do it a variety of ways. In horses one of these ways is the trot. However, most Tennessee Walking Houses cannot trot, even though they are as physically capable as other breeds that do trot, which is most of them. Walkers lack this instinctive knowledge.

I began this research many years ago when my wife and I, avid backpackers, camped near an active beaver pond. The beaver pair was still building their dam. My first career was designing earth dams for the US flood control program, so the dam interested me.

I was amazed to find that it was much more sophisticated than our dams, which are basically carefully prepared piles of dirt. The beaver dam was a lattice of sticks, supporting a mud and rock wall on the upstream face. Building this complex structure is an equally complex process, including felling trees for the wood materials. I discuss this in the December 2013 article Meet the beaver.

There is also a lot on the robotic analysis research method, as well as on the overall concept of an instinct as an unlearned body of expert knowledge.

When an expert looks at a situation that falls under their domain of expertise, they see and think things that non-experts cannot do. In many cases instinctive behavior in animals is just like that.

Animals live complex lives that we do not understand. Both domestic animal husbandry and wildlife management depend on how well we understand the animals we are caring for or care about. Robotic analysis is a way to understand a lot more.


David Wojick, Ph.D. is an independent analyst working at the intersection of science, technology and policy. For origins see

For over 100 prior articles for CFACT see

Available for confidential research and consulting.

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November 26, 2020 10:22 am

A very good choice of articles for this website.
I assume Moderator Charles Rotten is on vacation today?
I had previously read this at CFACT.
Wojick is consistently good.
Consistently interesting.
Rare for a Ph.D.
More consistent and concise than any other science writer.
You should place all his articles here.
Wohick did not pay me to write this.
I asked for “$1.75, until payday”.
But he turned me down.

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  Richard Greene
November 26, 2020 1:44 pm

“Moderator Charles Rotten”

I’m assuming your autocorrect is on overdrive today.

Reply to  Jeff Alberts
November 26, 2020 4:00 pm

My autocorrect has taken over my computer,
Mr. Alflerts. My comments are out of my
control. I type in Ph.D. level comments
and the confuser sends deranged ranting
and raving to the website.

Reply to  Richard Greene
November 26, 2020 4:42 pm


Rafe Champion
Reply to  Richard Greene
November 26, 2020 9:01 pm


November 26, 2020 10:26 am

The difficulty that I see for “climate emergency” response in “robotic analysis” is that a robot cannot learn from an imaginary situation .
It takes a human to respond with fear , avoidance etc , either learned or innate, to an imaginary situation.

Reply to  farmerbraun
November 26, 2020 10:44 am

Sorry. I imagine some will not like the imaginary naughty word in this :-

Reply to  farmerbraun
November 28, 2020 3:54 am

Enjoyed the Frank Zappa clip immensely farmerbraun. Thank you.

David Wojick
Reply to  farmerbraun
November 26, 2020 12:43 pm

On the contrary, animals often spook at imagined threats that are not real. But only on a small, immediate scale. Our ability to do it globally over decades is an example of the downside of written language.

Reply to  David Wojick
November 26, 2020 3:18 pm

“animals often spook at imagined threats”
But in this case a threat is perceived – a real sensory cue has been mis-read or confused.
It’s a flight response.

Craig from Oz
Reply to  farmerbraun
November 26, 2020 6:21 pm

A question I mused on is can the reaction of the sensory cue be modified by behaviour, or is it ‘hard wired’ (for want of a better term) into a person/creature.

Working example.

A few years ago I was shopping in my local city and walking down the pedestrian mall to go home. About 4m in front of me was some random and as I walked behind him I noticed he casually bent down and lifted either the phone or the purse (I never discovered which) from a girl seated on one of the many benches in the area.

My first thought was ‘Hang on? Did I just see that?’ and my second was the slightly less than helpful ‘OI!!!!’

The guy half turned, realised I was definitely referring to him and broke into a run.

So I instantly chased him.

(half can of coke in one hand, bag of shopping in the other, a figure of style and grace…)

Anyway, didn’t catch him. Reality kicked in after about 10m but I kept with him for about 60m before he ran across one of our more major roads and I rationally decided I was not going to chase anyone into traffic.

But, getting back to the discussion, he broke, I chased. There was no thought process involved until about 10m later. Personally I put it down to having spend massive parts of my life playing full contact team sport where you learn to react to the movements around you or never get given field time.

The other possibility I made after discussing this with a friend is that maybe I am naturally a predator and my chase response is hard wired.

(one thing that isn’t hard wired is my fitness – I nearly coughed up a lung chasing that little prick! 😛 )

Bill T
Reply to  Craig from Oz
November 27, 2020 3:10 am

Same thing here but I ended up chasing two kids with guns who had shot up our chickens. It was night, just gone to bed and heard them. Jumped out a window and chased them for about 100 feet until it dawned on me that I was in my skivvies and they were armed. So stopped and yelled at them, returned home and called their mother who said it could not possibly be them. Asked where they were now. “Out hunting”.
The kids did not turn out well.

Reply to  farmerbraun
November 27, 2020 4:17 am

and a wise one, better to spook and be wrong than not react and get got.
ie stick/snake

im raising chickens after the fox killed my entire flock 3 weeks ago,
luckily I had room temp stored fertile eggs I could incubate
the chicks hatched saturday;-)
11 who now see me as mummachook and rely on me to teach them whats good whats not and how to respond.
theyre being dog accepting , as they see them(being inside chicks right now)
thats possibly going to be an isue as they grow and go outside as the damned dogs tend to chase chooks. the old crew knew dogs were danger! and to hide or fly up a tree when out roaming, this lot wont have that fear;-/

November 26, 2020 10:26 am

Trot seems to be difficulty, if you look at trotting races, often horses start to gallop and and are disqualified.
Seems to be not the usual way to move.

David Wojick
Reply to  Krishna Gans
November 26, 2020 12:46 pm

They break stride because they want to go faster, not because the trot is difficult. Most breeds trot and cannot do the running walk the Walkers do. Some breeds, called gaited, can do both gaits.

Reply to  David Wojick
November 26, 2020 4:25 pm

This sentance part “Tennessee Walking Houses cannot trot” created a funny image in my brain. Typing error i know. But talking about horses , there are two breeds of horses ( Icelandic and Mongolian ) that i know of that have 5 types of gaits instead of the common 4 , and in both cases it seems to be something of a born with or inherited trait as the foals seem to the know how to do the “tölt”-gait from the day day the are able to stand on all four feet.
Below is a link to the to a short youtube clip showing those iclandic five gait-types of the iclandic horses

Reply to  Björn
November 27, 2020 4:09 am

gallops a canter and the tolt n flying are just pacing
note the rider didnt rise to the trot
must have a cast iron bum

Reply to  ozspeaksup
November 27, 2020 5:40 pm

Perhaps he’s a robot.

November 26, 2020 10:31 am

My favorite is fish have X mins of memory….

….so every fish in the ocean is lost

Reply to  Latitude
November 26, 2020 10:58 am

But they don’t remember they’re lost.

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  Latitude
November 26, 2020 1:46 pm

Yet they remember that when I walk into the room and up to the tank, it might be feeding time, so they come to the surface.

X mins of memory is rubbish. They just don’t care.

Reply to  Latitude
November 26, 2020 6:40 pm

LOL! Tell that to the salmon

November 26, 2020 10:34 am

“Cow” circles are celebrated by auerochs, if I remeber well some pitures in earlier days.

Reply to  Krishna Gans
November 26, 2020 10:39 am

buy a “too”

Reply to  Krishna Gans
November 26, 2020 10:57 am


John Tillman
Reply to  Krishna Gans
November 26, 2020 3:06 pm

It’s common in many related species, to include musk oxen, not just the cows, but bulls as well.

Ed Bo
November 26, 2020 10:55 am

Many years ago, I read Richard Dawkins’ book The Extended Phenotype, which dealt with these issues. He considered the structure of the beaver’s dam or bird’s nest, for instance, as every bit as much part of the creature’s phenotype as its hemoglobin makeup.

It seems that your blog is not searchable, so I don’t know if you have made reference to this work or not.

Looking over my bookshelves now, I don’t see the book. So it appears to be one of those that I liked so much that I gave it to a friend to read. (Does anyone else suffer from the phenomenon of giving away your favorite books, so your own shelves only have mediocre books?)

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Ed Bo
November 26, 2020 11:53 am

Ed Bo posted: “It seems that your blog is not searchable, . . .”

Well, Ed, please look at the top far right alongside any WUWT article posting and you’ll find a search box immediately underneath the title “NEW! Improved search capability”.

David Wojick
Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
November 26, 2020 12:54 pm

He means the blog where all my articles are. It is a simple blogspot blog. I have no computer skills.

I have not read Dawkins but surely it is generally accepted that instincts like nest building are genetic. Or perhaps I do not understand the point of the reference.

My proposal is to describe these instincts in cognitive detail — concepts, perceptions, knowledge and decisions. In AI this is called knowledge engineering.

Ed Bo
Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
November 26, 2020 1:54 pm

Gordon: I was referring to David’s own blog horsecogntion — the subject of this post. Can you find a search feature there?

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Ed Bo
November 27, 2020 7:22 am

Ed, my apologies for my misunderstanding.

Gunga Din
Reply to  Ed Bo
November 28, 2020 2:24 pm

Something to try, lacking a built-in search feature, would be to hit he “F” key while holding down the “CRTL” key.
A window should pop up where you can enter your search word.
It won’t search the entire site but it will search the part of it you have open.
(Maybe you already knew that.)

TG McCoy
November 26, 2020 11:12 am

The Cat and the fish is hilarious. Had a Mainecoon that was too smart for his own good.
His favorite cat toy was a Dog brain. He’d open doors ,pullout pet food bags with his teeth,
and the only thing that he couldn’t out smart were blue jays..
Yellow cat hair in the nest and all that..

Timo, Not That One
November 26, 2020 11:12 am

I once saw a little brown bunny-rabbit siting in the middle of my bright green front lawn. It was completely covering a small brown patch of soil, where a removed tree stump still prevented new grass from growing.
At first I thought that it was foolish of this rabbit to completely cover the only bit of ground where it would be camouflaged. Then it occurred to me that any local predatory bird has likely experienced this little brown patch before.
I will never underestimate instinct again.

November 26, 2020 11:21 am

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

November 26, 2020 11:22 am

“Animals live complex lives that we do not understand.”

True. It might be added that we barely understand human behavior. Since we’re in a psychological philosophical mood today, I’ll offer two Carl Jung quotations and a link (6 pages):

“In each of us there is an ʘther whom we do not know. He speaks to us in dreams and tells us how differently he sees us from the way we see ourselves…” —Psychological Reflections

“…The question arises: ‘Has the Unconscious consciousness of its own?’” —ETH Lectures, Pages 212-213

David Wojick
Reply to  J Guenther
November 26, 2020 12:59 pm

Very true. How language works is still a mystery. How can a sound refer to a city?

Reply to  David Wojick
November 26, 2020 6:37 pm

A sound can not refer to a city, and never does of itself. A particular sound can however become generally accepted to refer to a city, but only by those who have previously heard that sound used in reference to that specific city. Where the same city/town names exist in different countries, people from those countries will accept the sound as being a reference to their own city. Does the Sound of “Washington” refer to the State, City or person? Assuming that your sound means the same as another’s use of the same sound leads to message misinterpretation .

Gordon A. Dressler
November 26, 2020 11:24 am

Few know that the Stonehenge monoliths were actually erected to memorialize the protective circles formed by cows when threatened, which the Druids observed all too often in their day.

It was much later in time that some of the Stonehenge stones were found to be coincidentally situated with certain astrological/astronomical alignments.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

P.S. Be very thankful that humor still exists to this day.

Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
November 26, 2020 1:05 pm

When noticing these astrological alignments, do they account for polar procession?

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Jeff in Calgary
November 26, 2020 1:45 pm

The Druids were reportedly very smart. Related to polar precession, which particular alignments are you referring to?

Is it the particular one on stone #6 that relates to determining the ascending node of the vernal equinox, or is it the offset of -3.25 degrees in the orbital eccentricity drift-adjusted obliquity of the ecliptic measured off of stone #1, or just the +22.71 degrees offset in the argument of perihelion as derived from stones #4 and #7 taken together?

Also, please be aware that the signs and constellations defining today’s astrological zodiac have changed since the time of the Druids and construction of Stonehenge, somewhat independently of polar precession.

Reply to  Gordon A. Dressler
November 26, 2020 5:36 pm

In case you haven’t noticed, the Druids are no longer around. None ever returned from their polar procession.

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Tom
November 27, 2020 7:32 am

Tom. I get your point . . . subtle as it may be.


Jeff Alberts
Reply to  Jeff in Calgary
November 26, 2020 1:52 pm

yup, you just shift all the stones to the left..

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Jeff Alberts
November 27, 2020 7:35 am

“. . . to the left.”

Ummmm . . . would that be when looking north or looking south . . . or looking east, or looking west?

Peta of Newark
November 26, 2020 11:33 am

Its Rose Tinted stuff like this, removed from the real world while professing to have studied/understand it (e.g. The scientific insanity that is the GHGE)that will get ourselves extincted.
By our own hand

I’m sure you’ve a pithy trollism for peeps who appeal to their own authority as I’m about to but tough.
It might just save your life.

I kept cows. With their own babies. As nautural as natural could be.
Because here in the UK are things called ‘Footpaths’. Enshrined in English Law as devices allowing anybody at any time to go wandering about over somebody else’s property.
Just try that with your neighbours.

No matter, plenty self righteous folks take it upon themselves to do exactly that, trample someone else’s property and often in the company of their pet dog

The cows DO NOT form a circle with the calves inside.

Just for a taster you wanna see what they do to a wild rabbit infected with Mixymatosis. i.e. Blind
The cows mash the attacker/intruder into the ground. even just a blind little bunny rabbit

They do that to human ‘intruders’ also

Just one of many incidents that happen regularly – prompted by guff as we read here?

And I know about Belties, my neighbours kept them. They’re the short haired version of the Aberdeen Angus I kept and *normally* the most docile lumps of beef you’ll *ever* come upon.
Equally as docile as the herculean Charolais.

On the subject of Inherited Animal Knowledge- why do baby human animals universally *hate* eating vegetables?
Are they trying to tell us something?
Such as: Mummy daddy I don’t wanna eat that foul tasting nutrient-free 5h1T and die an early death from obesity cancer diabetes autoimmune disease and/or Covid?

But Mummy Daddy know better and that veggies are *healthy* someone who has studied the subject for years *and* wrote dozens of articles told them so…..

Wake up people and show Ma Nature some respect – *not* Fake Awe & Wonderment typified by that old fool Attenborough

David Blenkinsop
Reply to  Peta of Newark
November 26, 2020 12:59 pm

In my experience with cows, they mostly try to trample intruders when they get upset, hard to tell if a circular formation is involved?

One behavior that is quite universal and persistent is that when most of the cow moms are grazing away from their own calves, the calves will be in a small locality with at least one or two cows always nearby, babysitting.

David Wojick
Reply to  Peta of Newark
November 26, 2020 1:28 pm

Sorry but I saw the cow circle myself. I am a farmer. As for the rest, I happily have no idea what you are talking about.

Reply to  David Wojick
November 26, 2020 2:31 pm

When the dog runs behind you for safety , the cows encircle. If there are calves within mooing distance , you’re in real big trouble.
We could consider a thermo-taxi as an alternative explanation . . . the calves were just keeping warm in the middle of all the heating elements.

Jeff Alberts
Reply to  David Wojick
November 26, 2020 4:04 pm

“As for the rest, I happily have no idea what you are talking about.”

That’s pretty typical for Peta. Welcome to the club.

Reply to  David Wojick
November 26, 2020 6:55 pm

Maybe they only form circles when they’re in the right mooed.

John Loop
Reply to  jorgekafkazar
November 27, 2020 5:38 am

You deserve a grin for that one!!

Reply to  John Loop
November 27, 2020 9:43 am

Thank you, John. I’ll be here all week.

David Blenkinsop
Reply to  David Wojick
November 26, 2020 8:49 pm

My own experience, on the family farm in years past, was in
somewhat hilly terrain where protective circles might not be easy to organize in any case. However, when those cows start stomping on an unfortunate adversary, it starts looking like an inward looking circle, or trap of sorts. Incidentally, I never saw a coyote get into that sort of trouble, stealthy lot, coyotes..

Lee L
November 26, 2020 11:41 am

“When I sit on the mower it runs out and hides under my truck. This baby knows when to hide, where to hide and how to hide. It also knows when to change hiding places. These are complex behaviors.”

Yes and a bird is a very complex organism with a sizeable brain.
I repeatedly observe similar behaviour when I walk in to my bathroom at night and turn on the light.
Invariably, a few individuals from the silverfish infestation I am battling. They seem to be mostly night creatures and emerge from nooks and crannies in the dark. When the light turns on the response is to ‘freeze in place and wait’. This lasts maybe 10 seconds and then dark seeking behaviour starts up. If the bug detects any sort of visiual cue ( implying movement of a threat) they go into high gear and scurry FAST. They also have an uncanny ability to randomly change direction when you are trying to swat them flat.

Tom Abbott
Reply to  Lee L
November 26, 2020 6:17 pm

“Yes and a bird is a very complex organism with a sizeable brain.”

The bird brain packs a lot more neurons into a small space that does the human brain. This probably applies to a lot of smaller animals. Animals may not be as dumb as some people think.

I know that dogs can learn from each other, and they have a lot of the same emotions that people have.

I had a dog who was almost blind and he would feed by first walking up to the feed bowl and then he would feel around with his nose, all around the outside of the bowl and then all around the inside, and then he would get himself a big mouthful and walk off and lay down and eat.

I had an older dog at the time I got this dog and within a few months of getting the blind dog, my older female dog started doing the same thing at the feed bowl as the blind dog. I guess she thought that might be beneficial to her. She stopped doing it after a while.

I had a pitbull dog once and I had a six-foot tall chainlink fence all the way around my house, so the dog could run free without causing problems to anyone else. Well, this dog had learned how to push underneath a chainlink fence and would get out. Imagine the strength it would take to force the bottom of a chainlink fence out far enough for you to get on the other side.

Anyway, I ended up putting an electric wire along the bottom of the inside of the fence which would shock the dog if he touched it. So he touched it and yelped and got a taste of it. The next day I was out in the yard with him and I was looking at his face and he walked up to that electric wire, and apparently he had forgotten it was there, and when he saw it, his eyes went wide, just like a startled human would do, and he backed away from the wire. After that, I quit putting an electrical charge through the wire because he had learned his lesson and wouldn’t go near it.

Dogs are wonderful people. I’m not surprised that humans and dogs are companions.

Reply to  Tom Abbott
November 27, 2020 10:07 am

Well, dogs have evolved for thousands of years to be suitable companions for people. It’s part of their evolutionary adaptation. I’m not sure who got the best of the deal, but pooches are now part of the human race.

Reply to  Lee L
November 27, 2020 4:25 am

so stick a bugbomb in there just after lights out
to catch even more put shredded paper slightly damp in there for a few nights before to encourage them all out for a feed
no more bugs

November 26, 2020 11:46 am

I’ve often thought that some social philosophies don’t pay attention to heridity. They often propose actions that result in failure and death because it conflicts with survival.

“Let’s have some peace around here.” The DNA of those who choose not to survive an attack don’t reproduce. And there will always be attackers. “Peace, peace; when there is no peace.”

The some for those who practice the “one child” philosophy.

Poorly stated I know, but DNA rewards the survivors.

Tom Foley
Reply to  OK S
November 26, 2020 8:58 pm

OK S: There’s always the likelihood that those people who don’t want to fight, but just hide, or run away, are more likely to survive, while those who take on the attackers get killed. The latter fighters sacrifice themselves so the former scaredy-cats survive and reproduce. In a violence prone species, retaining genes for both behaviours is the safest strategy.

Bill Powers
November 26, 2020 11:57 am

i once lived in a Tennessee Walking House. It was very scenic and educational. The only problem was my address kept changing and the Post Office tired of forwarding my mail.

Gunga Din
Reply to  Bill Powers
November 28, 2020 2:40 pm

Who knew that mobile homes were invented in Tennessee!
If they were “running” houses, maybe there’d be less tornado damage!
(“Fun with Typos” 101 😎

November 26, 2020 12:02 pm

Readers intrigued by David Wojick’s post and articles will likely like this book (I do):
Evolutionary Epistemology, Rationality, and the Sociology of Knowledge —
Radnitzky & Bartley, editors, 1987.

Jeff Yeates
November 26, 2020 12:02 pm

By what mechanism does a synaptic modification to the brain (learning) modify DNA in an existing egg, sperm, or embryo in order to pass on learning as an instinct?

Gordon A. Dressler
Reply to  Jeff Yeates
November 26, 2020 1:55 pm

Jeff, just google “epigenetic modification” and read to your heart’s content.

November 26, 2020 12:22 pm

‘Expert knowledge’ is really the wrong words for instinctive behaviour. Analysis of such behaviours show that the animal responds to proximal cues, so that the complete behaviour could be viewed as a series of responses to the cues as they evolve. For example, the beaver responds to running water by inserting sticks in it, and keeps doing this as the water rises until the dam is complete. Lake beavers do not experience flowing water and dig dens in the bank.

For cows to form a circle, the only requirement would be for each cow to prefer to be flank to flank with another when threatened. In response to threat bellows, calves come close to the dam’s flank, and the movement of the cows would push them into the centre of the circle.

Yes many behaviours are complex, but they can be decomposed into bits of stimulus and response. What an animal inherits is the tendency to respond in a particular way under a complex set of conditions which include its physiological state. This is different from what humans can do such as complete a complex task they have no experience of on the basis of verbal instructions. Thing go exceedingly wrong when a human simply follows his/her instincts. For example, men who react with aggression when their ‘possession’ of a mate is threatened.

Timo, Not That One
Reply to  Fran
November 26, 2020 12:43 pm

“Yes many behaviours are complex, but they can be decomposed into bits of stimulus and response.”
How would you explain the rabbit that chooses to sit on a tiny patch of brown dirt in the middle of a bright green lawn? I still marvel at how this choice was made without reasoning. I used to think that animal camouflage was a passive affair. This rabbit seemed to make an active decision, somehow knowing that sitting on the little patch of brown on a green lawn would make her invisible to birds.

Reply to  Timo, Not That One
November 26, 2020 2:39 pm

The bare soil was a warm patch.
Cows always seek the warmest , driest ground to camp on.

Tom Abbott
Reply to  Timo, Not That One
November 26, 2020 6:31 pm

I usually have anywhere from a dozen to two dozen new rabbits appearing around where I live every spring and by this time of year they are all gone, picked off by Hawks. I saw one rabbit yesterday just as it was getting too dark to see, and it ran away fast, and that’s the only one I’ve seen in weeks.

Watching all the rabbits disappear over the season makes me think sometimes that there might not be any more left, but there is always a new batch in the spring. The way of the world.

Reply to  Tom Abbott
November 26, 2020 7:38 pm

That sounds just like the action of RHD virus – just a few immune rabbits left each season.

Tom Abbott
Reply to  farmerbraun
November 27, 2020 6:05 am

It’s not a disease. It’s the hawks and the owls that get them.

I have a relative that lives next door to me, about 100 yards away, and the rabbits I’m talking about populate the gravel road between the two houses. They seem to like the mowed grass. And as I said, there will be anywhere from a dozen to two dozen of them sitting along the road. I can almost walk up to them. They’ll move away if I get too close, but they don’t run off and hide. They are not afraid of me, up to a point.

Last year I had about two dozen of the critters hanging around and in just about one 24-hour period, they were all gone. Something came along and hit a bonanza. It’s curious that they seem to wait until the rabbits are mature before getting them.

I have lots of hawks and owls around here along with coyotes and bobcats. But I’m pretty sure the hawks are the ones getting the rabbits. I have one hawk that just sits on my fence sometimes. I run him off when I see him. It doesn’t really help the rabbits, but it makes me feel better. 🙂

Tom Foley
Reply to  Tom Abbott
November 26, 2020 9:06 pm

There have to be lots of new rabbits to feed the hawks. There have to be lots of hawks to pick off the excess rabbits so rabbits don’t overrun the world. The latter happened in Australia where rabbits were added to into an environment without predators (and competitors) who had evolved along with them.

Lee L
Reply to  Timo, Not That One
November 26, 2020 7:48 pm

“This rabbit seemed to make an active decision, somehow knowing that sitting on the little patch of brown on a green lawn would make her invisible to birds.”

Oh I see now…. Like my cat that somehow knows my wife’s knitting pile will make it invisible to her.

Or the rabbit’s ass feels better on the scruffy brown patch.

November 26, 2020 12:23 pm

A lot of what critters do is determined by their physical bodies. There is the concept of embodied cognition.

Mark Tilden used to work at the University of Waterloo but not as a professor. The problem was that his robots were far more capable and interesting than those created by the faculty. Needless to say, he ended up elsewhere (JPL if I recall correctly).

Mark liked to build simple robots using salvaged parts from calculators, greeting cards, and cell phones. Some of them accurately mimicked insect behavior. Because they had the right physical layout they needed only rudimentary processing, ie. the chip from a singing greeting card.

If you look at animal behavior in the same way you look at imperative computing, it looks very complex. If you consider physicality and look at it in terms of pattern recognition, it looks much simpler.

The bottom line is that critters, including humans, aren’t logic processors. If anything, the underlying processing is pattern recognition. It’s way more computationally efficient and way more likely to result from evolution.

Patrick Hrushowy
November 26, 2020 12:31 pm

How much of human behaviour is also genetically inherited? Remember that old saying about an apple nor falling far from the tree? There is perhaps more truth to that than we thought. Besides having ears similar to my father’s, what else about my behaviour came from my father via my genes?

Reply to  Patrick Hrushowy
November 26, 2020 12:43 pm

We do a whole bunch based on our biology. The term, ‘Thinking with his gonads’, comes immediately to mind. What separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to make up complex excuses for why we did those things.

Reply to  Patrick Hrushowy
November 28, 2020 9:40 am

I never got to know my grandparents on dad’s side of the family. Grandpa died ~7 years before I was born and grandma passed when I was 3 months old. Here’s the interesting part for me. Grandpa was a quaker, grandma a catholic, dad and his brothers were raised non religious because their parents did not want to force their religious views on their kids. Years later I’m taking an online test to determine what religion you are (I consider myself agnostic) and started laughing as soon as I saw the results. What am I according to that test? a neo Quaker, something I had never heard of up until that point. Genetics, learned behavior or a bit of both? I don’t know.

November 26, 2020 12:34 pm

Is the author suggesting that learned behavior can be passed on genetically? If so, it suggests Lysenkoism. In any case, there would seem to be little evidence for this in humans;)

Rud Istvan
Reply to  Tom
November 26, 2020 9:07 pm

Tom, you need to get up to speed. There is a legit form of’Lysenkoism’. Its technical name is epigenetics. I wrote about it over at Judith’s Some years ago, using mesoamerican beans (Pulses) as the epigenetic plant example. All 11 dry mesoamerican pulse ‘beans’ (pinto, navy, black, kidney, red, …) are the same wild type plant genome, just different epigenetic phenotypes.

November 26, 2020 1:11 pm

With my horseback riding activities suspended for the foreseeable future, I’ve taken to reading up on the theory of equitation and equine behavior in general. The blog link may provide me with much more reading material. 😉 I started reading a sample of a book titled “Equitation Science” by Paul McGreevy. It is more of a textbook and, alas, a rather pricey one. The book discusses how horses think and learn, and how to train and handle based on those factors. The author covers ethology, which seems to match your field of interest.

Ron Long
November 26, 2020 1:18 pm

I’m a little conflicted by the general theme here. As a bighorn sheep hunting guide (as a sport, not my usual job) I pre-scouted to find the real trophy rams, mapped their normal routines, then bumped them a little (put my weak scent on them) and watched where they went to feel safe, I can testify that the bigger, trophy rams displayed more behavior that would seem “intelligent” than the regular rams. However, when the client showed up we moved in on these guys and they never adjusted their behavior even if they detected us first. Their behavior was more survival-adaptive than intelligent, and this seems to me to be similar to humans of higher intelligence having more fun than the average.

November 26, 2020 2:08 pm

It seems to me that this is distinction without a difference.
It is all a result of evolution.

It runs in the family (Bovidae). This from GOOGLE:
Arctic wolves, polar bears, and brown bears may predate on musk ox. When threatened by potential predators, musk oxen will form a formidable circle around their young with their horns pointing outwards for protection. Musk ox may charge to scare away the predator.

November 26, 2020 2:52 pm

Human “Fight or Flight”. Learned or instinct? Instinct in my book.

November 26, 2020 4:17 pm

Interesting subject, the book Guns, Germs and Steel comes to mind
on how some human groups were able to domesticate certain animals and plants
and therefore had an advantage over other groups that couldn’t domesticate
their native animals.
The reintroduction of grizzly bears is now going through some interesting
changes in behavior with human interaction in both food supply (grains & domestic
livestock) and learned (pepper spray) and bluff charging while not being shot and
some use of dogs to teach avoidance. Learned vs inherited or both

November 26, 2020 5:18 pm

Seems to me that the difference between prey/predator animals and machinery is that chaos factor is part of the animal kingdom and not the “machine’ or robot kingdom. Corvids like crows have a higher number of ganglia in their brains than we mere mortal Hoomans, and will not only recognize a cat, dog or Hooman, but will also report it. Instant memorization of human facial features, among other things, plays a part in that.

That applies to migratory birds, too – the youngest members of the flock memorize the route south in one trip, and use that memory to find their way back home.

Frankly, since I feed the birds a lot in the cold weather, I know that they will line up on the roof of the house next door and watch to see how soon I emerge from The Cave to put food on the rails for them. Squirrels, too – they’ll know when I’m going to put apples or peanuts on the rails.

The critters have extremely complex brains, that function in ways far beyond any kind of robotic engineering.

Reply to  Sara
November 27, 2020 4:33 am

“Corvids like crows have a higher number of ganglia in their brains than we mere mortal Hoomans, and will not only recognize a cat, dog or Hooman, but will also report it. ”

Reminds me of an article I read once… i was fascinated.

Then there’s this:

Robert of Texas
November 26, 2020 6:18 pm

Behavior is not one or the other – instinctual or learned. It is a combination of these things in complex evolved creatures.

An ameba has instinctual behavior, but can learn to a very small degree. The learning is most likely chemical in nature and obviously not the growth of new nerve cells since it has only one cell.

Something as complex as a cat though can have both instincts and learning that adds on top of that. A cat institutionally chases after a small moving object, but can also learn all sorts of hunting tricks to entrap the prey. Anyone who thinks cats do not learn such behavior has never owned, or at least paid attention to a cat.

There can be many basic instincts underlying a complex “learned” behavior – think of learning as the complex behavior that maximizes the instincts benefits (usually).

The example of cows forming a circle – this is called emergent behavior and is based upon some very basic instincts that would seem to have little to do with forming a circle but when practiced by a “herd” a circle emerges. There doesn’t have to be any learned behavior here at all. Just as birds flocking is an emergent behavior, not learned.

I suspect there are some really interesting emergent behaviors from basic instincts in humans as well, but no one is allowed to think that way about a human. Tribal behaviors, religious behaviors, and even panic hoarding are all likely emergent behaviors from some instincts we are born with. In humans at least there is some early programming occurring right after birth and those “impressions” will follow the person through the rest of their lives – but humans can often learn to repress such impressions.

I had a couple of Doves decide they wanted to build their nest in my porch fern hanging in a basket. They had two fledglings and I tried very hard to not panic the parent on duty by talking in a soothing voice as I came out the door to water plants. Eventually the parents stopped flying off when I came out – if I was talking. They had keyed into my voice, not my looks. Then they disappeared and left two almost ready to fly birds in the nest…I keep talking when I was around them to keep them settled. One day I walked out and saw them on the side of the nest watching me in what looked like panic. I said something soothing to try to calm them down. They both jumped over onto to me! They considered me safe despite I was one very poor looking bird. Even after they had taken flight, for weeks they would come down to me if they heard me. What would I call this behavior? Instinctual? Learned? (I never taught them to come to me) It was definitely complex, and there must have been one or more instincts involved. It certainly wasn’t learned.

Reply to  Robert of Texas
November 27, 2020 8:35 am

A cat institutionally chases after a small moving object …

Do they cleverly work out new ways to catch mice or do they learn what doesn’t work and stop doing that?

Tom Abbott
Reply to  Robert of Texas
November 28, 2020 4:18 am

“I suspect there are some really interesting emergent behaviors from basic instincts in humans as well, but no one is allowed to think that way about a human.”

I saw a tv program some time ago where they would put young children, about one year old, in a bare room with their mother standing while holding them, and then a stranger to the baby would enter the room and stand near the mother and baby without any other interaction, and you could see the babies slowly lean away from the stranger. Nobody taught those babies to do that. They were born naturally leery of unknown things.

I think this natural instinct in humans is related to racism. The fear of the unknown. The cure for unreasonable fear is to become familiar with the unknown.

Tom Abbott
November 26, 2020 6:41 pm

I read an article not too long ago that was saying that humans had the “kind” gene for 82 million years. The “kind” gene is demonstrated when one human does something for another human based on alturism rather than for selfish reasons.

The reason they used the 82 million year figure (I think that was the number) was because that was when humans and rats diverged on the evolutionary scale. The article was about the rats showing altruistic behavior with other rats.

So I guess altruism is an inherited trait of a lot of animals.

Reply to  Tom Abbott
November 26, 2020 7:54 pm

There are videos of animals of one species rescuing individuals of another.

November 26, 2020 6:46 pm

My neighbors had an English sheep dog. It was raised in New York City and had never seen a herd animal. They took it to the parent’s house in the country and it herded several goats onto a flat bed trailer and kept them their all day. Of course it’s some sort of inherited memory.

Reply to  Norman Hasty
November 26, 2020 7:40 pm

Or there has been selection by sheep-owners for dogs that run in circles .

Reply to  farmerbraun
November 26, 2020 7:57 pm

Takes more than running in circles. Check this remarkable drone footage out of a dog herding sheep, .

Reply to  Norman Hasty
November 27, 2020 7:15 pm

A good cow pony doesn’t have to be trained.

November 27, 2020 4:38 am

even dog breed that are NOT herders can show the ability
my Irish wolfhound would would help me herd muscovy ducks into their pens
very slow n gently and all by his own volition to do so.
present dog one of 5 has worked out how to hunt lizards n mice in long grasses
she sits back then front leg pounces in the area to make them move when theyve escaped her first attempts
and shes endlessly patient in the doing of it
hours or days but she will catch them
to my dismay when its a lizard;-((
and panic when its a damned tiger snake like last xmas effort!

Tom Abbott
Reply to  ozspeaksup
November 27, 2020 6:21 am

Did your dog get bit by the Tiger snake? You guys sure have a lot of nasty crittes in your neck of the woods. 🙂

I have poisonous copperhead snakes around here, with a cottonmouth or two thrown in. Every once in a while one of my dogs will get bit by a copperhead. They all survived, but the bite would swell up badly in some cases, the size of a baseball or bigger.

I don’t think copperheads are as lethal as some of the snakes you have where you live.

November 28, 2020 10:26 am

I was raised on a farm around animals and spent a lot of time watching them. First thought I want to share is animals (most anyway) are not at all dumb, there’s a difference in how fast they think but certainly not dumb. They most certainly sit there cogitating on things and figuring them out. Which brings in point number two and what this article is about, how much is a learned behavior and how much is instinct and I would say it’s a bunch of both. A cow learning how to test if an electric fence is on or off is not instinctual, a horse purposely pushing another horse through same said electric fence so she can get out without receiving a shock certainly is not instinctual. A heard animal catching motion out of the corner of their eye and running away from that motion is most certainly instinct. We can also teach animals to overcome their instincts (learned behavior) which is what a bunch of what we do when training animals. It’s not instinctual for a horse to accept something on their back (that’s where mountain lions land to bite through the neck after all). No matter how many generations of horses we’ve bread we still have not been able to breed out that instinct so must instruct every generation individually.

Secondly this is about Tennessee Walkers and correcting the OP misinformation about their gaits, Walkers are the only breed I’ll ever own after having riding them for years. Walkers are a gaited breed, their two gaits are a flat walk and running walk. It’s actually one gait with speed being the difference between them. Anyway the gait is a cross between a pace and a trot. That means walkers are capable of all three means of locomation. A “naturally” gaited walker needs no training to maintain their gait. A pacey walker means they lean more towards a pace a trotty walker means they lean more towards a trot. Pacey and trotty walkers do need training to maintain flat walk and running walk. Whichever gait they lean towards naturally can be fully trained also so you can turn a pacey walker into a full blown pacer. Walkers also have another gait that is not so fondly called the broken washing machine because that’s what it feels like you are riding . What is the broken washing machine? That’s when they are doing a bit of everything and you are getting tossed all over the place! It happens when training young ones and they’re not sure what you want out of them but also happens with inexperienced riders and arethey sending conflicting messages to the poor horse and it’s trying to do what you ask.

Richard Aubrey
November 28, 2020 1:29 pm

Used to have a dog who would be annoyed with us if we left without paying her sufficient attention. She would get trash out of the wastebasket in the upstairs bathroom and bring it down to the door from the garage where we would enter upon our return.
She didn’t bring a slipper or a sofa pillow or any such. Not from closer areas.
Somehow she figured the negative vibes associated with bathroom trash would make her point when other items would not.

Gunga Din
November 28, 2020 2:56 pm

I remember when I was a bit older than being “a kid”, my sister’s boyfriend gave her a pure bred Irish Setter puppy.
When he was a few months old I took him to my friend’s house. When he saw their canary in it’s cage he went into a perfect “point”.
(He was a registered pure bred with the AKC so there was no “Goa’uld” in his blood and no scars on his neck.8-)

November 28, 2020 4:05 pm

Interesting thanks.

Animals of course have instincts, whereas humans do not except for basic life-starting actions like suckling to get nourishment.

It strikes me that it is challenging to separate taught behaviour from instinctive and theorize how natural selection affects both.

The bird knows to shelter from threats above it, and perhaps big threats like you. That knowledge keeps it from getting eaten by hawks, thus it lives to reproduce.

Birds need to learn how to get food, crows keep their young with them through their first winter, whereas Great Blue Herons do not (their survival rate is only 50%). Crows may be smart birds in general, ravens are even smarter

Animals like cougars teach their young to hunt, but apparently could do better, as young cougars have attacked children. (Complicating that is that cougars are territorial, thus young ones have to work harder to find food sources. (Cougars usually go for prey no taller than they are, so a defense against them is to look tall. OTOH, bears know about standing height.)

Environment and means of living are key factors. Edwin A. Locke described the mis-represented experiment in which a chimpanzee was compared to a four-year-old in ability to find a banana when the box was moved within a room. The child did far better than the chimpanzee, grasping the concepts. But Ed pointed out that chimpanzees have to be more spatially oriented as they often move by swinging between branches and vines in the jungle.

Some animals are Darwin Candidates, like some humans. The clan of Southern Resident Killer Whales on the inner coasts of BC and WA are too _culturally_ dependent on a single source of food – big fish, whereas transient KWs are more versatile. Off the coast of Norway, orcas have learned to corral herring to gulp many at once – families/clans may die out, the species will continue. (A single herring takes energy to catch, and may be difficult to find by eco-location.)

Explorer John Rae told of a tribal group who came to the HBC fort he was running at the time asking for food. While HBC would provide food if it wouldn’t leave themselves short, in that case Rae taught the slow-witted people how to catch fish in a nearby lake.

One thing that animals and birds and fish are good at is living their life their way, in accordance with their identity. Comparisons with humans is very difficult. Ascribing human-like characteristics to animals, as Walt Disney did, is entertaining but not meaningful. A frequent problem is not giving animals much credit for capability.

One eco-idiot neighbour was feeding raccoons near the doors to her apartment. Being smart, they figured out that good food came from inside those openings. So when someone left a door ajar for their cat or fresh air, racoons raided their kitchen. When challenged, the eco-idiot said ‘those poor little things wouldn’t hurt anyone.”, ignoring that they are wild animals who will defend themselves and their young as they see fit, not as she fantasizes. So raccoons who’d been transiting the neighbourhood for years without harming anyone except perhaps a dumb dog or two had to be trapped and exported, which is very hazardous to them physically and because they’d be dumped in a location they have to find food sources in and possibly fight for territory.

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