Contact Us

University of Illinois Extension serving Christian, Jersey, Macoupin and Montgomery Counties

Montgomery County
#1 Industrial Park Dr.
Hillsboro, IL 62049
Phone: 217-532-3941
FAX: 217-532-3944
Email: uie-cjmm@illinois.edu
Hours: Monday - Friday 8 am to 12 pm, 1 pm to 4:30 pm

Christian County
1120 N Webster St.
Taylorville, IL 62568
Phone: 217-287-7246
FAX: 217-287-7248
Hours: Monday - Friday 8am to 11:30am, 12:30pm to 4.30pm

Jersey County
201 W. Exchange St.
Suite A
Jerseyville, IL 62052
Phone: 618-498-2913
FAX: 618-498-5913
Hours: Tuesday & Wednesday 8 am to 12 pm and 1 pm to 4:30 pm and Thursday 8 am to 12 pm

Macoupin County
#60 Carlinville Plaza
Carlinville, IL 62626
Phone: 217-854-9604
FAX: 217-854-7804
Hours: Monday - Thursday 8 am to 12 pm; 1 pm to 4:30 pm

News Release

Piglet behavior study shows they prefer new toys

Date: June 21, 2017

Source: Stephen Fleming, 224-456-9392, sflemin2@illinois.edu

News writer: Lauren Quinn, 217-300-2435, ldquinn@illinois.edu

 

URBANA, Ill. – We can’t help but be tempted by new things. We see it in a child’s eyes when she opens a new toy, and feel it every time a new version of the iPhone is released. It turns out our preference for shiny, new things is pretty universal throughout the animal kingdom. Yes, even piglets prefer new toys.

In a recent study from the Piglet Nutrition and Cognition Lab at the University of Illinois, 3- and 4-week-old piglets were given dog toys to play with. Then, after a certain delay, they were given that toy again, along with a new one. Researchers wanted to see if the delay diminished the piglets’ memory of the first object.

Females and 4-week-old piglets of both sexes were a little better than males and 3-week-olds at remembering the first object, even after a two-day delay. But, for the most part, all the piglets made a beeline for the new toy.

The study wasn’t really about proving that piglets are capable of learning and remembering – that’s already well known. “You could ask any farmer how smart pigs are and they’ll tell you they’re smarter than dogs. That piece isn’t new,” says Stephen Fleming, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in the Department of Animal Sciences and the neuroscience program at U of I.  

The study wasn’t about designing a new way of testing animal behavior, either; the same test has been used in rodents. The real utility of the study was the fact that the test worked for pigs. Pig brains are remarkably similar to human brains, so they are often used as model systems by neuroscientists.  

“With humans, when we want to know if something’s affecting how they learn or behave, we can ask them a question; with animals, we can’t. Historically, researchers have had animals complete a maze or press a lever every time a light comes on. But if you try to translate that to people, it becomes difficult. We don’t usually put people through mazes,” Fleming explains.

The study measured object recognition behavior in two ways, each of which reflects activity in a different part of the brain. Novel object recognition, already described, is thought to be controlled by a brain region called the perirhinal cortex. Novel location recognition, or piglets’ ability to remember where a familiar object is located, is likely controlled by the hippocampus.

It turns out 3- and 4-week-old piglets, whose brain development is roughly equivalent to 3- to 4-month-old infants, have a bad spatial memory: when familiar toys were in a different spot, the piglets played with them as if they were new.

The test will be used primarily as the foundation for additional research. For example, scientists could use it to determine if there are any behavioral or neurological effects of dietary additives or nutritional deficiencies.

“We wanted to prove that piglets are able to remember objects and that the test is sensitive. Are we actually measuring memory or is it something else? Now that we’ve proven they can recognize that objects are new, we can go in with a nutrient and see how they perform,” Fleming says.

The article, “Young pigs exhibit differential exploratory behavior during novelty preference tasks in response to age, sex, and delay,” is published in Behavioural Brain Research. The study was co-authored by Fleming’s Ph.D. advisor, Ryan Dilger, associate professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at U of I. Support for the research was provided by Mead Johnson Nutrition and the American Egg Board.

###