Basic Instincts
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This video segment from Nature: “My Life as a Turkey” highlights the innate knowledge wild turkeys have about the world around them. In this segment, wildlife artist and naturalist Joe Hutto reflects upon the depth of knowledge wild turkeys have about the world around them. He states they are born with a “blueprint” of animals and the natural environment and are able to easily distinguish harmful animals from friendly ones. Hutto conducted an experiment, where he became a parent to 16 wild turkeys, by having them imprint onto him. (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.) Hutto mentions the one thing he needed to teach them was where to find water and the specific lay of the land. (Note: The segment features voiced narration by Joe Hutto and a recreation of Hutto’s experiment by Jeff Palmer.)

Discussion Questions:

  • Based on the video, what are some things wild turkeys seem to know instinctively?
  • What are some discoveries Joe Hutto made about what the turkeys knew and what they needed to learn from him?
  • In general, which do you think plays a stronger role in an animal’s behaviors—nature (inherited traits) or nurture (external factors)? Explain your rationale.
  • In the video, Hutto mentions that the turkeys have a basic blueprint about plants and animals. Do you agree with that statement or do you think they gain their knowledge through environmental cues, or through a combination of inherited knowledge and external factors? Explain your reasoning, using information from the video segment to support your position.

Background Essay:

Scientists have long reflected on the question of what knowledge and behavior is determined by nature (genes and inheritance) and what is acquired by nurture (upbringing & environment). Some believe that animals’ behaviors are primarily determined by evolution, while others believe that external factors play a major role in modifying animal behaviors.  Although the debate continues about whether nature or nurture plays a more important role in determining animals’ behaviors, most scientists agree that a combination of inherited and environmental factors contribute to species’ behaviors.

An example of this combination can be seen in dogs. Some breeds, such as Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers, tend to have very gentle demeanors, but if raised in an abusive or other type of negative environment, they may become more aggressive and violent. Scientists have conducted studies to explore whether nature or nurture plays a bigger role on various types of behaviors, including language. One study in Cambridge, England examined whether birds raised in isolation would have the same vocalizations as those raised in the wild. The study found that birds raised in isolation made similar sounds as those in the wild, but lacked some of the detailed vocalizations displayed by birds in the wild. The study illustrates that both nature and nurture play roles in shaping the birds’ vocalizations.

The Nature episode “My Life as a Turkey” illustrates how wildlife artist and naturalist Joe Hutto used his knowledge of wildlife to get 16 wild turkeys to imprint onto him. 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.  Wild turkeys are born with a pre-programmed drive to imprint onto their mother. In the absence of a mother, birds can imprint onto humans and inanimate objects.

Hutto lived with wild turkeys for more than a year and was able to closely observe what knowledge they instinctively had and what they needed to learn as they matured.   Hutto’s experiment provides some valuable information for the nature vs. nurture debate. Even though Hutto lacked knowledge a real turkey mother would have had, the wild turkeys he raised were still able to distinguish harmful from friendly animals and they had a deep understanding of their surroundings. Hutto believes wild turkeys are born with a “blueprint” of animals and the natural environment, which helps them distinguish harmful animals from friendly ones and identify potential dangers.

The nature vs. nurture debate is not just limited to thinking about behavior in wild animals. Scientists and psychologists have long debated about the impact of nature vs. nurture in human beings, as well.

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National Science Education Standards:
Grades 5-8:

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

  • Reproduction and Heredity
    • Every organism requires a set of instructions for specifying its traits. Heredity is the passage of these instructions from one generation to another.
    • The characteristics of an organism can be described in terms of a combination of traits. Some traits are inherited and others result from interactions with the environment.
  • 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.

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.

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