Humans have long underestimated animals according to Manuel Leal, professor of biological sciences at the University of Missouri. Leal said it is the limited perception of human beings that has led to this lack of appreciation for animal intellect.
After encouraging audience members to fill in the front rows of Monsanto Auditorium, Leal began discussing the need for science to include naturalists, in addition to observers and experimenters.
This idea was, in part, what inspired the name of the lecture, Whither the Naturalist in the Age of Genomics. A naturalist such as Leal tries to see from the animal’s point of view, taking into account things like evolution and natural history.
“Intelligence is a human construct,” Leal explained. Because of this, “we have underestimated their ability to remember and to solve problems.”
A kind-eyed man with long hair, and a beard to match, Leal gripped the attention of the room as he moved through subjects ranging from evolutionary physiology and behavioral morphology to honest signaling and homing capabilities in lizards.
“I’m interested in why behaviors evolve and how this can help animals cope with changing conditions,” Leal said.
With a concise and effective slideshow, Leal enthusiastically explained the data and findings from his latest studies.
To their own detriment, many scientists tend to conduct experiments and observe lifeforms in laboratories exclusively instead of field settings, he said. There are a multitude of factors that make field studies more helpful. Our own perception is obviously distinct from the perception of other species; animals experience and perceive sensory information that would never occur to the average human.
Leal described one experiment that involved displacing lizards by taking them from their homes, putting them in a bag, and bringing them to a new location. The lizards were able to find their way back to the original spot after being displaced up to 200 meters. The lizards homing mechanism is still being researched, but it involves visual maps as well as magnetic fields in the lizards brain.
This experiment, according to Leal, is a good example of how difficult it would be to create a perfect environmental replication for most biological experiments because certain conditions are nearly impossible to recreate.
The seminar was organized by the Division of Biological Sciences, as part of an ongoing series of lectures. The goal is to have lectures on a broad variety of biological subjects, so that students can understand different fields of study and have a more integrated perspective.
Benton Berigan, a doctoral student on the seminar planning committee for his second year, was not surprised the lecture went well.
“Biology is the study of life, and the DBS seminar highlights the diversity of biological research,” Berigan said. “The exposure to a diversity of organisms, ideas, theories, and areas of specialization has helped me to develop a deeper understanding of biology, while also allowing me to frame my research in the context of the big picture. ”
Anyone is invited to contact the seminar planning committee if they have a recommendation for a guest speaker.