• Question: How does animal instinct work? what compels them to do the stuff they do?

    Asked by KNE:):) to Alison, Jonny, MarthaNari, Paul on 23 Jun 2015.
    • Photo: Jonny Brooks-Bartlett

      Jonny Brooks-Bartlett answered on 23 Jun 2015:

      Honestly I don’t know the answer to this question and so maybe one of the other scientists can help me.

      I love watching David Attenborough documentaries and I’m often so amazed at the things that certain animals and insects “know” how and what to do, especially when they’ve only just been born. I can’t really explain these.

      But what I do know is that we shouldn’t think of an animal’s experience as similar to ours necessarily. Because they have different DNA and body make-up, it’s incredibly likely that they experience things that us humans can’t even imagine.

      For example: Dogs are able to detect diseases such as cancer and diabetes and warn humans of impending heart attacks and strokes. Elephants, whales, hippopotamuses, giraffes, and alligators use low-frequency sounds to communicate over long distances, often miles. And bats, dolphins, whales, frogs, and various rodents use high-frequency sounds to find food, communicate with others, and navigate.

      So it may be that because animals experience things differently, things that don’t seem natural to us, is just normal for them.

    • Photo: Martha Havenith

      Martha Havenith answered on 24 Jun 2015:

      Hey KNE, that’s a great question, and I don’t think there are a lot of definite answers yet. Obviously, to be there already at birth, a skill would have to be hard-wired into the brain. For example, we reflexively stretch out our arms when we fall forwards. That’s a hard-wired reaction loop – some of it is wired into the brain, some of it even into the spine, so that it can happen as fast as possible. Some parts of what animals do will be hard-wired like that, and it’s probably more than in humans. That only really works though for actions that are always pretty much the same (you wouldn’t be able to stop yourself from stretching out your hands even if you are falling onto a hot plate). So it’s pretty amazing how flexible some animal instincts can be (e.g. birds always build a nest, but they’ll have to build the nest differently on different trees). So there is probably a lot of interaction between hard-wired action sequences, and flexible triggers for those sequences (‘Bird spots tree. Bird makes judgement that the tree looks nestable. NOW commence nest building.’) The flexible bits are really interesting, and probably learned/taught in some cases. It seems that even animals we think of as simple can teach each other some things. For example, experienced ants teach young ants how to carry things, and which routes to take back to the nest. It’s a fascinating mix and I hope we understand it better in the next few years!

    • Photo: Paul Brack

      Paul Brack answered on 25 Jun 2015:

      There’s a lot more detail here: http://www.scienceclarified.com/everyday/Real-Life-Biology-Vol-3-Earth-Science-Vol-1/Instinct-and-Learning-How-it-works.html
      It discusses the idea that instincts are passed on because they aid survival, which means they are favoured by evolution.