An Imprinting Experiment
Enhanced Video Resource

This video segment from Nature: “My Life as a Turkey details the steps wildlife artist and naturalist Joe Hutto took to become a parent to 16 wild turkeys. (Note: The segment features interviews and voiced narration by Joe Hutto and a recreation of Hutto’s experiment by Jeff Palmer.) Joe describes his experience with imprinting, the process of becoming a mother to young animals, and his desire to have turkeys imprint on him in order for him to gain more insight into their world. The segment shows the steps Joe took to have wild turkeys imprint on him as their mother, including turning the eggs twice a day, talking to them regularly and making sure he was the first thing the poults saw and heard when they emerged from the eggs.  Through this process, Joe Hutto became a parent to 16 wild turkeys.

Discussion Questions:

Before watching the video:

  • How do you think a human could get wild turkeys to think he/she was their parent?
  • Why do you think a person might be interested in becoming a parent to wild turkeys?

After watching the video:

  • Discuss why Joe Hutto decided to embark on this project and describe the steps he took to have the wild turkeys imprint onto him.
  • Describe the scientific process involved in Joe Hutto’s experiment.  What was he trying to find out?  What steps did he take?  Compare and contrast Joe Hutto’s experiment with the procedures involved in traditional science experiments.
  • Describe your thoughts about the process of having animals imprint onto a human being.  Describe the possible pros and cons of this type of experiment.
  • As a result of natural selection, hatchlings form a strong social bond.  Describe how the process of imprinting could be advantageous from an evolutionary perspective.  (For example, why would it be beneficial for a young bird or animal to imprint onto its mother or, if its mother wasn’t present, something/someone else?)
  • Reflect upon whether or not you would like to have wild animals imprint onto you.  What would be the rewards of conducting an experiment similar to the one Joe Hutto conducted?  What would be the challenges?

Background Essay:

Imprinting is a biological phenomenon that occurs when animals form attachments and develop a sense of identity in the first few hours and days of their lives.  Birds and mammals are born with a pre-programmed drive to imprint onto their mother.  They have been prepared by natural selection to form an immediate and strong social connection.  Imprinting provides animals with information about who they are and determines who they will find attractive when they reach adulthood.  When poults are first born, they look for a parent with which to bond.  The process by which offspring imprint onto their parents is referred to as “filial imprinting”.  Once imprinting has occurred it is irreversible.

In the early 1900s, Austrian scientist Konrad Lorenz conducted the first scientific studies on imprinting and discovered that young birds became attached to the first moving object they saw after coming out of their eggs.  In the wild, this object is usually their mother, but Lorenz successfully had young geese imprint onto him, as well as a variety of inanimate objects, including boots, a ball and an electric train.  For turkeys, as well as ducks, geese and other birds which walk soon after birth, it is critical for their survival for them to follow someone that will keep them out of danger.  After being exposed to an object for one to two hours, the young will show a strong preference to the imprinted object and will be upset if the object is taken away.

Although scientists have successfully had young animals imprint onto them, there are potential dangers of having animals imprint onto a human being.  Species that imprint onto humans often prefer human company to that of members of their own species, have a difficult time surviving in the wild, and are, sometimes, not able to successfully raise their own young.

For more information about imprinting, go to:

National Science Education Standards:

Grades 5-8:

Content Standard C: Life Science
Fundamental concepts and principles that underlie this standard include:

  • Regulation and Behavior
    • Behavior is one kind of response an organism can make to an internal or environmental stimulus. A behavioral response requires coordination and communication at many levels, including cells, organ systems, and whole organisms. Behavioral response is a set of actions determined in part by heredity and in part from experience.
    • An organism’s behavior evolves through adaptation to its environment. How a species moves, obtains food, reproduces, and responds to danger are based in the species’ evolutionary history.
  • Diversity and Adaptations of Organisms
    • Biological evolution accounts for the diversity of species developed through gradual processes over many generations. Species acquire many of their unique characteristics through biological adaptation, which involves the selection of naturally occurring variations in populations. Biological adaptations include changes in structures, behaviors, or physiology that enhance survival and reproductive success in a particular environment.
    • Extinction of a species occurs when the environment changes and the adaptive characteristics of a species are insufficient to allow its survival. Fossils indicate that many organisms that lived long ago are extinct. Extinction of species is common; most of the species that have lived on the earth no longer exist.

Grades 9-12:

Content Standard C: Life Science
Fundamental concepts and principles that underlie this standard include:

  • The Behavior of Organisms
    • Organisms have behavioral responses to internal changes and to external stimuli. Responses to external stimuli can result from interactions with the organism’s own species and others, as well as environmental changes; these responses either can be innate or learned. The broad patterns of behavior exhibited by animals have evolved to ensure reproductive success. Animals often live in unpredictable environments, and so their behavior must be flexible enough to deal with uncertainty and change. Plants also respond to stimuli.
    • Like other aspects of an organism’s biology, behaviors have evolved through natural selection. Behaviors often have an adaptive logic when viewed in terms of evolutionary principles.

Content Standard G: History and Nature of Science
Fundamental concepts and principles that underlie this standard include:

  • Science as a Human Endeavor
    • Individuals and teams have contributed and will continue to contribute to the scientific enterprise. Doing science or engineering can be as simple as an individual conducting field studies or as complex as hundreds of people working on a major scientific question or technological problem. Pursuing science as a career or as a hobby can be both fascinating and intellectually rewarding.

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