Conference to explore complexities of animal behaviour

Published 25 March 2008

“Are animals autistic savants?” This intriguing title of a recently-published scientific paper gives some idea of the exciting questions that today’s researchers in animal behaviour are asking. In answering this question in the negative, the authors of the paper (Giorgio Vallortigara, Allan Snyder, Gisela Kaplan, Patrick Bateson, Nicola Clayton and Lesley Rogers) draw on a body of research that, over the past 30 years, has successfully demolished some long-held assumptions about the essentially “primitive” nature of cognitive processes and abilities in animals.

At the forefront of that research has been one of the paper’s authors – Emeritus Professor Lesley Rogers of the University of New England. Professor Rogers’s pioneering work – together with that of her colleagues and students – has shown that the well-known specialisation of the left and right sides of the brain for different aspects of cognition and behaviour, long thought to be unique to humans and a mark of our more “advanced” cognitive function, is also characteristic of many animal species.

This Thursday, the 27th of March, Professor Rogers will give the opening Plenary Lecture at the 35th annual conference of the Australasian Society for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASSAB), organised by her UNE colleague Professor Gisela Kaplan who is also an international authority on animal behaviour and a joint author of the “autism” paper. The title of Professor Rogers’s lecture, in which she will survey the latest results of research on brain asymmetry, will be “Social and cognitive behaviour of animals with asymmetrical brains”. The conference will then proceed with 42 spoken papers and about 30 posters covering a huge range of species and behaviours: from navigation by ants and food hoarding by birds to dolphin social networks and “courtship effort in a desert-dwelling fish”.

A special feature of the conference, to be hosted by UNE’s Centre for Neuroscience and Animal Behaviour and held at the Novotel Pacific Bay Resort (and the National Marine Science Centre), Coffs Harbour, from Thursday the 27th to Sunday the 30th of March, will be a celebration of the career of Professor Rogers, who recently retired as Professor of Neuroscience and Animal Behaviour at UNE. She was a founding member of ASSAB, and has served as its President (1973-75), Vice-President, and Secretary. The conference will be preceded – on Thursday morning – by a special symposium in her honour (also organised by Professor Kaplan with the help of a team of research students from the Centre for Neuroscience and Animal Behaviour).

Last year Professor Rogers convened and chaired both the Australian Academy of Science’s first-ever symposium on animal cognition, and the associated four-day inaugural workshop of the Forum for European-Australian Science and Technology (FEAST). The question of animal “autism” was raised at that workshop, the suggestion being that the amazing cognitive abilities of some animals – such as the ability of a species of bird (Clark’s nutcracker) to remember the locations of thousands of cached nuts – could be functionally analogous to the abilities of autistic savants.

The “autism” paper (PLoS Biology Vol. 6, No. 2), written by participants in the FEAST workshop who are among the foremost researchers in their fields in Europe and Australia, argues that the cognitive function of animals is much more like that of “normal” humans. Animals as well as humans have lateralised brains, the authors argue, and rely on the integrated function of the right cerebral hemisphere (responsive, in a “savant-like” way, to details and novel stimuli) and the left cerebral hemisphere (which processes stimuli according to patterns based on experience).

“Animals as well as humans need both right-hemisphere and left-hemisphere functions to survive in the world,” Professor Rogers said. Next week’s ASSAB conference will explore many of those means of survival.

THE PHOTOGRAPH displayed here is of a tawny frogmouth, a species to be discussed at the conference in a paper by Gisela Kaplan titled “Emotional state, signals and communication in the tawny frogmouth (Podargus strigoides)”.