Scientists are starting to be able to accurately read animal facial expressions and understand what they communicate.
Facial expressions project our internal emotions to the outside world. Reading other people’s faces comes naturally and automatically to most of us. Without your best friend saying a word, you know — by seeing the little wrinkles around her eyes, her rounded, raised cheeks and upturned lip corners — that she got that promotion she wanted.
What if we could just as easily read the faces of other living beings? Will there come a day when we can hold up a smart phone to our cat and know how he’s feeling?
Researchers are developing coding systems that enable them to objectively read animal facial expressions rather than inferring or guessing at their meaning.
A coding system precisely describes how different facial features change when an animal feels a particular emotion, such as squinting an eye or pursing lips. By looking at photographs and scoring how much each of these features or “action units” change, we can determine how strongly an emotion is felt.
Pain recognition first frontier
So far, only pain coding systems (grimace scales) for non-primate animals have been scientifically developed. Despite their different anatomy; mice, rats, rabbits, horses and sheep (including lambs) all pull a similar pain-face. They tighten their eyes, bulge or flatten their cheeks, change the position of their ears and tense their mouths.
The push to develop grimace scales has largely come from our desire and ethical duty to assess and improve the welfare of animals used in labs or for food products.
Ideally, we want a way to accurately and reliably know how an animal is feeling by simply looking at them, rather than by drawing blood for tests or monitoring heart rates. By knowing their emotional states, we can change help to reduce pain, boredom or fear and, ideally, foster curiosity or joy.
Particularly for prey animals, subtle cues that other members of their group (but not predators) can pick up on are useful for safety, for example. A pain behavior cue may trigger help or comfort from other group members, or serve as a warning to stay away from the source of pain.
If we can decipher grimacing, we should also, theoretically, be able to understand facial expressions for other emotions such as joy or sadness. We would also likely want to comprehend facial expressions for the animals closest to our hearts: our pets.
Smart phone app for animal emotions
One day, pet owners, farmhands or veterinarians could hold up a smart phone to a dog, sheep or cat and have an app tell them the specific emotion the animal is showing.
However, getting to an automated emotion-identification system requires many steps. The first is to define emotions in a testable, non-species-specific way.
The second is to gather descriptive baseline data about emotional expression in a controlled, experimental environment. One way to do this might be to put animals in situations that will elicit a particular emotion and see how their physiology, brain patterns, behavior and faces change. Any changes would need to occur reliably enough that we could call them a facial expression.
We already have some hints to go on: Depressed horses close their eyes, even when not resting. Fearful cows lay their ears flat on their heads and open their eyes wide. Joyful rats have pinker ears that point more forward and outward.
Once we have gathered this data, we would then need to turn that scientific information into an automated, technological system. The system would have to be able to extract the key facial action units from an image and calculate how those features differ from a neutral baseline expression.
The system would also need to be able to deal with individual differences in facial features as well as subtle differences in how individuals express emotion. The process of feature extraction and calculation also becomes difficult or fails when a face is poorly lit, on an angle or partially covered.
While we are making progress in automated human facial expression identification, we are still a long way off when it come to animals. A more realistic short-term goal would be to better understand which emotions non-human animals express and how. The answers could be staring us right in the face.
About The Author
Mirjam Guesgen, Postdoctoral Fellow in Animal Welfare, University of Alberta
Animal Communication Boot Camp: A step by step program to help you achieve a deeper communication with your pets and the animal world.
Studio: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Label: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Manufacturer: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Studio: Sinauer Associates is an imprint of Oxford University Press
Label: Sinauer Associates is an imprint of Oxford University Press
Publisher: Sinauer Associates is an imprint of Oxford University Press
Manufacturer: Sinauer Associates is an imprint of Oxford University Press
Although the basic order of topics is similar, this second edition is a completely new book. The topics in the 26 chapters of the first edition have been condensed and integrated into 16 chapters in the new version so as to better accommodate upper-division undergraduate courses with 15-week semesters. The text omits boxes and, instead, the relevant mathematics, more advanced considerations, citation bibliographies, and web links for topic enrichment have been assembled into chapter-specific and freely accessible web modules. This was done to improve the flow for undergraduates, while still providing access to more technical details and scholarly sources for graduate courses and professional users. Figures and photos are now full-color and the book has a larger format that makes for easier reading. This edition retains the broad taxonomic and sensory scope of the first edition and even adds coverage of several modalities and taxa not discussed in the first edition. As with the first edition, every chapter concludes with an itemized summary of major points and suggestions for additional reading.
As the title suggests, the emphasis in the text is on identifying general principles that apply broadly across taxa and modalities. At the same time, major effort has been expended to integrate these principles with the accepted principles of economics and other fields of science. Given this integrative nature, animal communication is a topic that can serve both as an appealing entry point to science for younger students and as a coalescing of separate disciplines for more senior ones.
New for the second edition, the Principles of Animal Communication Companion Website is freely accessible to all students and includes:
* Chapter Outlines for a quick overview of each chapter.
* Chapter Summaries for review of each chapter's main concepts.
* Web Topics that provide additional coverage and background material on a variety of topics throughout the textbook.
* Literature Cited for all works cited in the textbook.
For Instructors (Available to Qualified Adopters)
Instructor's Resource Library
The new Instructor's Resource Library disc includes all of the textbook's figures and tables (including photos) as both high- and low-resolution JPEG images, formatted and optimized for projection. All of the figures and tables are also included in ready-to-use PowerPoint presentations, making it easy for instructors to incorporate them into lectures.
Studio: Llewellyn Publications
Label: Llewellyn Publications
Publisher: Llewellyn Publications
Manufacturer: Llewellyn Publications
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