Piglets Learn to Use Combined Human-Given Visual and Auditory Signals to Find a Hidden Reward in an Object Choice Task


Although animals rarely use only one sense to communicate, few studies have investigated the use of combinations of different signals between animals and humans. This study assessed for the first time the spontaneous reactions of piglets to human pointing gestures and voice in an object-choice task with a reward. Piglets (Sus scrofa domestica) mainly use auditory signals–individually or in combination with other signals—to communicate with their conspecifics. Their wide hearing range (42 Hz to 40.5 kHz) fits the range of human vocalisations (40 Hz to 1.5 kHz), which may induce sensitivity to the human voice. However, only their ability to use visual signals from humans, especially pointing gestures, has been assessed to date. The current study investigated the effects of signal type (visual, auditory and combined visual and auditory) and piglet experience on the piglets’ ability to locate a hidden food reward over successive tests. Piglets did not find the hidden reward at first presentation, regardless of the signal type given. However, they subsequently learned to use a combination of auditory and visual signals (human voice and static or dynamic pointing gestures) to successfully locate the reward in later tests. This learning process may result either from repeated presentations of the combination of static gestures and auditory signals over successive tests, or from transitioning from static to dynamic pointing gestures, again over successive tests. Furthermore, piglets increased their chance of locating the reward either if they did not go straight to a bowl after entering the test area or if they stared at the experimenter before visiting it. Piglets were not able to use the voice direction alone, indicating that a combination of signals (pointing and voice direction) is necessary. Improving our communication with animals requires adapting to their individual sensitivity to human-given signals.

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Sandy Bensoussan, Maude Cornil, Marie-Christine Meunier-Salaün, and Céline Tallet

Publication Date

October 28, 2016


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