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Temple Grandin on new edition of ‘Genetics and the Behavior of Domestic Animals’

June 3, 2013

By Alison Bert, DMA

Temple Grandin touching a cow

World-renowned animal behavior expert talks about what she learned – and what she wants you to learn – from the updated text

Temple Grandin was a teenager when she realized she understood animals in a way most people don't. Autism caused her to think in pictures rather than words. And she would startle at sudden movements and high-pitched noises in a way that didn't make sense to those around her.

Her eagle eye for detail – and her keen sense of fear – led her to notice subtle things that would startle an animal. "It seems obvious: it spooks at a swinging chain, it spooks at a hose on the ground, a coat on a fence, a reflection on a puddle – especially little things that move," Dr. Grandin said, in an interview for Elsevier Connect. "But you know, most people don't notice those little things that scare the animal.

"An animal doesn't think in words," she explained. "An animal thinks in sensory images – pictures, sounds, smells, touch sensations. Animals notice little details that most people tend to not see."

Dr. Grandin's uncanny ability to get inside the minds of animals – and a lifetime of research in which she has applied her understanding to livestock handling – led her to edit the classic text Genetics and the Behavior of Domestic Animals, published by Elsevier's Academic Press in 1997.

She worked with co-editor Mark J. Deesing, a self-taught scientist whose experience as a farrier and horse trainer led him to make observations the two of them would research for articles in scientific journals and this book. (See related story.)

For the second editionopens in new tab/window, which will be released tomorrow, she and Deesing worked closely with experts in behavior genetics to update their knowledge of this rapidly advancing field, further deepening their understanding of animal behavior. Through this more refined lens, they and the contributing authors delve into which traits are genetic, which are environmental – and how one can influence the other.

"Genetics has changed a whole lot since 1997," Dr. Grandin said. "You can now link things like how fearful an animal is and how it responds to novelty to genetics. We're just getting so much more insight into how things work."

Mark Deesing

Mark J. Deesing

Related Story

"How a horse trainer got to publish research with Temple Grandin"

Bridging the gap between animal behavior and genetics

"One of the really interesting things I've learned is how animals evolve," she said. "You not only have changes in the coding DNA; you have changes in the non-coding, or regulatory, DNA." It is the changes in both types of DNA that cause a species to change over time. In the book, she gives the example of the stickleback fish, citing a 2012 study in Natureopens in new tab/window by Felicity C. Jones et al:

Changes in non-coding DNA during environmental changes cause stickleback fish to adapt by changing traits, such as body shape, skeletal armor or the ability to live in salt or fresh water.

"Back when we wrote this in 1997, they used to think all of the non-coding DNA was junk. They used to call it junk DNA … I never believed that – that 98 percent of the genome was junk. An awful lot of that stuff they used to call junk has to do with the operating system: the non-coding DNA controls what the coding DNA does. Something has to tell the coding DNA when to turn on and what to do – otherwise you're just a growing cancerous blob. … And now they're just starting to understand that."

In addition, she explained, by studying the brain systems that control emotions, scientists now have a much better grasp of how genetic factors affect behavior.

And that's the purpose of this book: to connect the field of behavior genetics with the research on behavior published in the animal science and veterinary literature.

domestic animals cover

"I'm trying to bridge the gap between the people in the animal behavior world and (experts in) genetics," Dr. Grandin said. "You get people who do all that molecular biology and they forget there's even an animal attached to that. We need to have more things where people get out of their silos and communicate … instead of people just staying in their own area."

The animal mind

The ability to connect with other people was a challenge for Grandin when she was growing up. Autism was poorly understood in the 1950s and 1960s, and kids bullied her for being different and for her tendency to repeat herself verbatim. "They called me tape recorder, they called me bones because I was skinny, and they called me workhorse because all I wanted to do was work in the horse barn," she said.

Ultimately, she found that riding horses gave her a way to connect with people who had the same interest. And while her differences caused her to stand out in school – they led her to accomplish things few others would be able to.

"I'm just an extremely visual thinker," said Dr. Grandin, who has compared her thoughts to videotapes and her recollections to Google Images. "It was kind of a revelation to know that most people don't think like I do."

That revelation led her to become a leader in the field of animal behavior, her work straddling the realms of academic research, industrial design, popular science and advocacy – for animal welfare and for providing the support autistic children need to develop their potential.

As Professor of Animal Scienceopens in new tab/window at Colorado State University, Dr. Grandin teaches courses on livestock behavior and facility design and consults with the livestock industry on facility design, livestock handling and animal welfare for her company Grandin Livestock Handling Systems Inc opens in new tab/window .

She has authored over 400 articles in scientific journals and livestock periodicals. Her curved chute and race systems for cattle are used worldwide, and her writings on grazing animal behavior have helped people reduce stress on their animals during handling. (Her academic website is grandin.comopens in new tab/window.)

Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin, PhD (Photo by Rosalie Winard)

Dr. Grandin is widely known for her bestselling books on autism and animal behavior, her appearances on news shows like 20/20 and 60 Minutes, and the award-winning HBO movie Temple Grandinopens in new tab/window, staring Claire Danes. Her interviews have been broadcast on National Public Radio, and she has a 2010 TED lecture called "The World Needs ALL Kinds of Mindsopens in new tab/window."

She did this interview while waiting for a plane. And when asked if she has pets herself, she answered only by saying, "I'm on the road 90 percent of the time."

"I'm just an extremely visual thinker — it was kind of a revelation to know that most people don't think like I do."

Who is the book for?

In the same way her career has touched many audiences, her book is intended for a broad readership. As the editors state in the preface: "This book will be of interest to biologists, researchers, veterinarians, livestock producers, zoo curators, behavioral ecologists, evolutionary biologists, and people who own and train domestic animals."

"It's for everybody – scientists, people who breed animals, anyone who works with animals," Dr. Grandin said. "In the first chapter, we define all these arcane genetics terms so if someone is just interested in breeding animals, they will know what the heck we're talking about."

The text alternates between easy-to-understand examples presented in layman's terms to detailed scientific explanations with footnoted references.

It covers everything from dogs to livestock – what startles animals, what can be trained and what can't be, what's genetic, what's learned and what's both. Dr. Grandin is equally fluent talking about the emerging field of epigenetics – which deals with how genes are "turned on or off" and affected by environmental factors – as what puts people's pets on edge.

For epigenetics, she referred to an experimental finding detailed in Chapter 1:

The offspring of rat mothers who display high levels of nurturing behavior such as licking and grooming are less anxious and produce less stress hormones, compared to the offspring of less nurturing mothers. In turn, the female offspring of nurturing mothers become nurturing mothers themselves. The effects of maternal behavior are mediated in part through epigenetic mechanisms.

The practical side of science

As to what stresses animals, much of that can be figured out by paying attention to visual cues.

"I have a slide I show my veterinary students where I show a dog with its legs kind of splayed out bracing itself on a slick veterinary table," Dr. Grandin said. "I show it to the vet students and say, 'Do you see anything about this picture?' Most of them don't see that the dog is having difficulty standing on that table. "You go on the Internet and you type in 'dog at the veterinary clinic' and you get all these cute pictures there, and half the dogs have their front feet splayed out because they're having trouble staying upright — and people don't notice it."

Just as Dr. Grandin has put her expertise to use in the real world of livestock handling, the scientific explanations in the book have practical applications.

A key message: ""Don't over-select for any single trait. I don't care what the trait is – behavioral, performance, appearance – if you over-select for a single trait, you will wreck your animal. "

Don't over-select for any single trait. ... You will wreck your animal.

For example, breeding chickens to grow, grow, grow, grow, grow until they have leg problems."

The advice was important enough for Dr. Grandin to repeat, as she often repeats phrases for emphasis, this time with a familiar example.

"Don't over select for any single trait. I mean, look at the bulldog – that's a monstrosity."

And in response to the suggestion: "But the French bulldogs are so cute —"

"They're cute but they can't breathe, they can't walk and they can't have their babies naturally."

In the preface to the book, the editors write:

Animals can be altered by genetic selection to such an extent that serious structural or neurological defects develop. It is not possible to have an adequate level of animal welfare if a selected trait becomes so extreme that it causes obvious mobility problems, or if it causes a condition that is known to be painful in humans.

That knowledge is at the core of the message Dr. Grandin hopes to convey with this book.

"I hope one of the things people are going to learn," she said, "is that genetics really does affect behavior."

What's inside

Understanding the relative influence of nature (genetics) and nurture (environment) in the development of behavior is the focus of behavioral geneticists. Basic genetic mechanisms producing changes in appearance and behavior of animals are described and key principles are explained in order to make it easier for the non-geneticist to read and understand the latest papers. The contributing authors explain the relevance of their work and discuss the basic principles that apply to other animals. … A wide range of literature is reviewed and presented in an easy-to-understand manner with a minimum of scientific jargon. When technical explanations are necessary, the subject is explained as clearly and simply as possible.

In Chapter one, Temple Grandin and Mark J. Deesing discuss many of the early studies of behavior that are still relevant to understanding the genetic effects on behavior, along with new developments in genetics.

In Chapter 2, Per Jensen and Dominic Wright discuss domestication as a genetic process, whereby animals change phenotypically and genetically as a response to living under human supervision.

In Chapter 3, Alain Biossy and Hans Erhard provide an overview of the current behavioral and cognitive aspects of emotions in animals and explores the impacts of emotional experiences on the animal adaptation to its circumstances.

In Chapter 4, editors Temple Grandin and Mark J. Deesing discuss observations under field conditions and review research findings which affect behavior of livestock during handling, herding, and restraint.

In Chapter 5, Peter Chenoweth, Antonio J. Landeta-Hernandez, and Cornelia Florecki discuss maternal and reproductive behavior in livestock and emphasize the importance of incorporating maternal behavior in selection to ensure that mothering ability is not compromised by selection for production traits.

In Chapter 6, Kathryn Lord discusses genetic effects on the behavior of different dog breeds. Dogs and wolves share genotypes, which are nearly identical, but their behavioral phenotypes are very different.

In Chapter 7, editors Mark J. Deesing and Temple Grandin review the current literature on horse behavior and offer suggestions for further research on subjects such as early experience effects on behavior and temperament.

In Chapter 8, Jean-Michel Faure and Andrew Mills discuss their classic work on fearfulness and social reinstatement (separation distress) in Japanese quail. This chapter is a good example of a well-done behavioral study that is still relevant after many years.

In Chapter 9, William Muir and Heng Wei Cheng focused attention on genetic modification to improve chicken adaptability to its environment and consequently to enhance its welfare.

In Chapter 10, Anna Kukekova, Lyudmila Trut, Gregory Acland, discuss ongoing research focused on identification of molecular genetic mechanisms associated with selection for behavior and behavioral genetics of dogs, wolves, and foxes with the aim of providing insight into the complex structure of domesticated behavior in canids.

In Chapter 11, Lotta Rydhmer and Laurianne Canerio discuss the importance of behavioral genetics for pig welfare, and discuss the possibility to select for behavioral traits in order to improve welfare.

In Chapter 12, editors Temple Grandin and Mark J. Deesing discuss serious animal welfare problems caused by over-selection for production traits such as rapid growth, leanness, and high milk yield:

Being practical people with years of hands-on experience with animals, both authors agree that decisions on the ethical use of biotechnology should be based on the concept of ethical cost. Invasive or painful experiments or the creation of animals with chronic pain should not be done for frivolous reasons. It may be justified to cause some pain or discomfort in an animal to find a cure for multiple sclerosis, but it would not be morally justified to make animals suffer in order to grow larger amounts of meat or produce a few more kilograms of milk. Furthermore, it is our opinion that extremely fearful or aggressive agricultural animals are not acceptable from an animal welfare standpoint.

Source: Preface to Genetics and the Behavior of Domestic Animals. Second Editionopens in new tab/window


Portrait photo of Alison Bert