Thursday, December 11, 2008

The mind of mice

Natural History magazine reports on a recent study published by Karen Mabry and Judy Stamps in the journal American Naturalist about how juvenile brush mice (Peromyscus boylii) select new nest sites. This species is native and broadly distributed throughout western North America. Rather than simply selecting the first acceptible nest site they encounter, they spend a week or more searching for and revisiting sites until eventually settling down.

What I find interesting about the report is that it further exemplifies the cognitive complexity of non-human animals. Sure, they are just mice, but they are actually comparison "shopping," a cognitive skill that involves the ability to compare items encountered at different times and different locations as well as the willingness to forego an acceptible resource in current possession (the potential nest site the mouse is presently at) for a better resource that was encountered in the past.

When I was a graduate student, Don Griffin had just published the first edition of his book Animal Thinking. I remember it being highly controversial because it argued (quite persuasively, in my opinion) that animals were conscious creatures. Prior to the 1980s, most behaviorists seemed comfortable thinking of animals as if they were non-conscious automatons. Griffin argued otherwise, and the avalanche of studies that have been done otherwise seems to support his position.

Comparison shopping for homes by mice seems to me to fit quite nicely into this view. The natural world is not only alive, but much of it is conscious and aware!

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