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Animals Use Computer Touch Screens in Research and for Fun

In this Feb. 21, 2012 photo, an orangutan works with an IPAD at Jungle Island in Miami.

The penguins at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California have something in common with Sara Mandel's cats.

“I had actually purchased this game in the app store for my cats,” said Mandel, birdkeeper at the Aquarium of the Pacific.

She wanted to see if these penguins would like the game as much as her cats did and asked her boss.

“He laughed at me. He kind of was like, ‘Well, you can try this if you want. Are you sure you want to give them your iPad? Go for it, but I'm not expecting a big result with it.’” Mandel continued, “I showed him, and he was pretty shocked.”

The tablet computer with the cat game intrigued the penguins right away, said Mandel.

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Exercise for animals' brains

The game has the option of a mouse, butterfly, or laser that moves around the screen. When an animal paws or pecks at the object, it scores points and the tablet makes a sound.

Mandel said the penguins enjoy playing with the tablet as much as people do. It is an enrichment exercise for the animals' brains as well as their bodies.

“While they're kind of hanging out there, I can look at their flippers. I can make sure everything is good and healthy, and I can even sneak a scale right underneath where Lily's standing, so I can get a weight on her,” Mandel said as she pointed at Lily the penguin.

Penguins are among the many animals playing with touch screens. Orangutans, gorillas and sun bears at Zoo Atlanta have also worked with this technology.

In this Feb. 21, 2012 photo, after being told a word, an orangutan points to that object on an IPAD at Jungle Island in Miami.
In this Feb. 21, 2012 photo, after being told a word, an orangutan points to that object on an IPAD at Jungle Island in Miami.

Tortoise faster than dog

In Britain, the University of Lincoln's Anna Wilkinson and her fellow researchers at other academic institutions have presented parrots and tortoises with touch screens.

A tortoise's neck length is an indication of whether it is comfortable with its surroundings. While working with the screen, Wilkinson described the tortoise's neck as “nice and long doing this, which is good.”

“Everyone thought it would take a really long time to train the tortoises to use the touch screen, but I've used the same setup with dogs and the tortoises actually learned to use it much faster than the dogs did,” said Wilkinson.

The touch screen helped researchers study how tortoises learn to navigate around space.

Removing 'humans from equation'

With the parrots, researchers used the screen to see how the birds explore and approach something new.

“The touch screens are fantastic because they give you lots of flexibility. You can present animals with all sorts of different stimuli. You can present videos. You can present moving things that they have to track. They are also incredibly good because you can remove humans from the equation,” said Wilkinson.

She said a human can be a distraction and less reliable than a computer when providing positive feedback, such as consistent timing when giving the animals food, as they respond a certain way in an experiment.

“We're seeing how they can see in a visual way that we aren't able to see before,” said Mandel. “We're not so different from them. We both like our touch screens too, but I do think in the future this could help do some research on how these animals function.”

Researchers said the animals have a short attention span and become tired after a period of time. Like humans, Mandel said the younger penguins are more fascinated in the game on the tablet. The older penguins lose interest.