Ancestral species of domesticated chickens seeks human contact

Species that are not domesticated can develop a social interaction with humans. Researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and LiU noticed this when conducting a study on junglefowl. They hope that the result will stimulate further studies into how contact with humans arises, particularly in birds. Birds have, namely, well-developed cognitive abilities, but have not been studied in this context.

Red junglefowl (G. gallus) chicks from the study population at Linköping University. Red junglefowl (G. gallus) chicks from the study population at Linköping University. Sam Hurenkamp

“We were investigating the ability of junglefowl to find food with the aid of their sense of smell, and I noticed that the birds often interrupted their task and approached me instead. We know that several domesticated species can seek contact with humans when faced with a difficult task, so I decided it would be interesting to look at whether junglefowl show similar behaviour”, says Diana Rubene, researcher at SLU, who carried out the study when working on a researcher exchange in Hanne Løvlie’s group at Linköping University.

The researchers used seven-week old chicks of the red junglefowl (Gallus gallus), an ancestral species of our domesticated chicken. Junglefowl have not been domesticated, nor have they been subject to selective breeding to bring out special properties. This meant that the researchers could be sure that contact-seeking behaviour has not arisen during these processes, which have been used to explain contact-seeking behaviour in previous studies.

In the experiment, the birds were tested for their ability to find mealworms in bowls placed in an open test arena in a test room. Sometimes, they interrupted the task and left the arena. When this happened, the researchers recorded the behaviour of the birds. Did they approach and look up at the experimenter with whom they had previously often interacted? Or did they approach another person in the room (who was less well-known to them), or other locations in the room? It became clear that the chicks approached the experimenter that they recognised from previous behavioural experiments significantly more often than other people or objects.

“What’s interesting is not only that they seek contact with a human, but also that they seek contact with a person with whom they have a relationship. The chicks had previously interacted several times a week with Diana. Contact seeking has not previously been investigated in birds, but just as primates and other mammals, birds have the fundamental abilities that make communication with other species fully possible”, says Hanne Løvlie, associate professor in ethology at the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biology at LiU.

The researchers also observed that the individuals who in another test more often tried to escape were the same individuals who most often sought contact. They interpret this to mean that contact seeking is one trait of the individual behaviour pattern of a junglefowl, in other words, its personality.

“We did not design the experiment specifically to study contact seeking, so these results must be confirmed by more standardised experiments. Several underlying mechanisms may have contributed to the chicks developing this behaviour. The principal explanation may be that exposure to humans during their early days of life has made them more receptive to develop a social interaction with the person with whom they most often interact. We hope that our study can inspire other researchers to investigate animal-human interaction in birds”, says Diana Rubene.

The study, which has recently been published in Frontiers in Psychology, may contribute to better understanding of how social interactions between animals and people have developed.

“The results from our junglefowl open a discussion relating to contact seeking. Could this be something that an individual learns while growing up or during its life? Is it possible that 8,000 years of selection during the domestications process is not necessary?”, asks Hanne Løvlie.

By studying the interactions between various species and humans, we can better understand how these interactions arise.

“This may eventually help us to understand the social abilities and needs of animals, which can help to increase the welfare of laboratory animals and animals used in production”, says Diana Rubene.

The research has received financial support from the FORMAS research council.

The article:Red junglefowl chicks seek contact with humans during foraging task”, Diana Rubene and Hanne Løvlie, (2021), Frontiers in Psychology, published online on 23 June 2021. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.675526

Translated by George Farrants

Source: Press release from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU)

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