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Can dogs learn from watching children?

How do animals – ranging from ants and dogs to pigeons and children – learn? Do they rely on traditions? Can they learn from other species?

Leading scientists from America, Japan and Europe will talk on species as diverse as crickets, bees, ravens, parrots, dogs, elephants and gorillas when they gather for an international conference at the University of St Andrews next week (15-18 June 2005). Studies to be aired include one suggesting that dogs could acquire abilities by observing human behaviour.

Some of the research to be reported will directly compare other species with our own. For example, young childrens imitation is sufficiently sophisticated to complete actions they merely see others attempt, suggesting they infer the goals at stake, and new studies will show that young chimpanzees see the world this way too. Children sometimes learn from the important results that others achieve and the conference will hear if the same is true for animals as diverse as pigeon and orangutans, based on ingenious experiments in which artificial food and other items move in a ghostly fashion, with no actor in view.

Other studies will emphasise the Machiavellian streak that social learning can inject into relationships for example when jays move food they have hidden to a new place after noticing that other birds have been watching and learning the first hiding place. But evidence will also be offered that highly social animals, from ants to rats to humans, may instead cooperatively provide useful information to favoured group mates, by actions ranging from laying scent trails to teaching.

The event will be hosted by the Universitys Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution, a world-class base for research on animal traditions, culture and learning, and will take place at The Gateway, North Haugh, St Andrews from 15-18 June 2005.

The conference will be supplemented by a public exhibition illustrating the wide diversity of work the staff of the Centre have become renowned for, from communication in birds, dolphins and whales, to the social understanding shown by pigs, chimpanzees and children. Exhibits include computer interactives and hands-on experimental apparatus. The exhibition will be open to the public all day from 16-18 June 2005. Further information about the conference is available at http://culture.st-and.ac.uk/solace.

ENDS NOTE TO EDITORS

Abstracts available on request from Tracy Niven – telephone 01334 462081. Media are also welcome to attend the conference – please call Claire Grainger or Gayle Cook for more information – telephone 01334 462529.

Issued by Beattie Media on behalf of the University of St Andrews. For more information, please contact Claire Grainger, Press Officer – 01334 462530, 07730 415 015 or cg24@st-andrews.ac.uk. Ref: press releases/animalsoclearn. View the latest University news at http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk

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