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Animal behavior is driven by a mix of biology and instinct

The dog sits on a square blue net platform, never taking her eyes off trainer Jake Humphries.

The duo from The Dog Wizard visited Dr. Jeff Thomas's Biology 407 class recently to demonstrate training techniques that reveal much about animal behavior. Thomas's class spread out on Burwell Lawn as the trainer spoke about how he came to understand dogs and what informs their behavior. Cars whizzed by on nearby Selwyn Avenue, campus neighbors jogged by with other dogs, and still Humphries' pooch was riveted to his face.

A student marveled, "my dog would never, ever sit that still." The trainer smiled and replied, "she would if you gave her the right motivation."

Humphries explained that his dogs are motivated to obey because he's developed a clear and consistent system of communication and rewards with them.  He spoke about how dogs see flashes of images and once they've zoned in on something interesting that slideshow stops, and they hyperfocus on one thing at a time.

A few weeks later a team from the Carolina Raptor Center visited the class, bringing six different birds of prey along to discuss their distinctly unique behavior. Throughout this presentation, trainer Muriah Bottemiller spoke about the challenges and thrills of training hawks, owls and falcons.  She demonstrated techniques that are used to train wild birds to do things as simple as sitting in a crowded room and as complicated as flying a loop over an audience of people. 

Thomas says interacting with animals teaches students about list of key concepts in ways regular lectures can't.

"You can learn about behavioral theory in class, but watching other people actually apply that theory to real situations with live animals brings all that process into focus," Thomas said. "It's no longer just an idea, it's the real world."

Thomas also took the class to the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, S.C., where they examined zoo behaviors while looking at the ways that zoos design enclosures to encourage natural behaviors in animals. 

For other classes, including zoology, Thomas has taken students to the N.C. Zoo in Asheboro followed by camping at Badin Lake.

"Getting students into the field provides an experience that laboratory science doesn't quite do," he says. "Working on live animals in the wild is dirty and messy and completely unpredictable.  It's also really fun!  It's not until you find yourself out in the field that you really start realizing that there's a whole world that most people ignore."

He said that on the camping trip to Badin Lake a student held a snake for the first time. "She was thrilled and surprised to do something that she had never considered before," he said. 

In addition to his work at Queens Thomas also works with faculty at other schools to help improve their science curriculum.  His research interests include many aspects of animal behavior and ecology, with particular interest animal communication and ecological interactions within communities.  He has done work on bird song, ecology, frog communication and behavior, and the mating systems of insects.   

He also is developing projects at Redlair, a reserve along the Catawba River which serves as an important location for the protection of local ecosystems and a key resource for student involvement in research projects.

He earned his bachelor's degrees in biology and French from UNC Chapel Hill, and his Ph.D. in biology from UCLA.


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