What the pigs say

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In the next few years an application could be developed to interpret the pigs’ cries and understand, just by listening to them, if they are “happy” – in the swine meaning of the term – or not. A European research group classified the types of cries produced by pigs by assigning them a positive or negative value based on observing their behaviors, and then programmed an artificial intelligence system to distinguish them. In the future it could be used on farms to judge the welfare status of pigs.

An article published in early March in the magazine Scientific Reports explains that the research team, led by Elodie Briefer, associate professor in Vertebrate Social Behavior at the University of Copenhagen, initially recorded 7,414 cries, emitted by 411 commercial farm pigs in 19 different situations, from birth to slaughter death.

For example, he recorded the grunts that piglets make when reunited with their brothers and sisters after being separated, and the high-pitched screams of adult pigs being presented with an unknown object.

Then the research team assigned each verse a positive or negative value based on the context in which it was recorded, following a principle of “intuitive inference”: “Negative emotions are part of the motivational system of an animal’s unpleasant sensations and they are aroused by contexts that would decrease adaptation to a natural environment and are avoided by pigs. It was therefore assumed that these contexts (eg stress, social isolation, conflicts and constraint in a confined physical space) were negative. Likewise, positive emotions are part of the motivational systems related to pleasure and occur in situations that increase adaptation. It was assumed that these situations (for example, reuniting with other pigs, clinging to them, breastfeeding and positive reinforcement) were positive. ‘

Among domestic animals, pigs are distinguished by the great variety of sounds they continuously produce; sheep and cattle are much quieter in comparison. For this reason, the sounds of pigs are studied in a particular way: previous research had shown that one can distinguish between sounds at high frequencies (the screams and squeaks) and low frequencies (the grunts).

The former are common in negative contexts, the latter in positive or neutral situations from the point of view of the pigs: the grunts of the pigs reunited with their brothers and sisters are in short verses with positive value, the screams of adults confronted with something that is not they know have a negative value. And so are those of the piglets that are castrated.

Briefer’s research group also analyzed other sound parameters of the collected lines, such as their duration, and then observed how they changed according to the contexts. From this analysis he was able to establish that the lines associated with positive situations are generally shorter and have a single tone.

The pigs participating in the experiment made noises like this even when they were ushered into particularly welcoming spaces, with a thick layer of clean straw on the floor and enriched with snacks the pigs liked (such as freshly cut apples, breakfast cereals and pasta. ), rubber toys, a braided rope similar to those that dogs play with and cardboard boxes.

On the other hand, the sounds of pigs that are hungry, collide with other pigs or are about to be slaughtered are longer and more varied.

Just by knowing these things a person is able to correctly interpret pigs’ verses, at least enough to understand their emotional state. The algorithm devised by Ciara Sypherd, second author of the article by Scientific Reportshe manages to do it even better, by comparing the spectrograms of the lines (visual representations of their frequencies and other parameters) with those he has already analyzed and which have already been classified: correctly recognizes whether a pig’s sound has a positive or negative value 91.5 percent of the time, and in 82 percent of cases it identifies the situation in which the verse was issued.

According to Briefer the results of the study are “very promising” for the development of tools capable of understanding pigs’ “emotions” based on their cries. These tools could be useful to breeders: for example by promptly warning them in cases where a sow inadvertently crushes one of the cubs (this happens frequently), or by reporting conflicting cohabitations between different animals. In general, they would allow breeding practices that are more careful and respectful of the welfare of the pigs during their growth, not only in terms of physical conditions, but also “emotional” ones.

The use of quotation marks is due to the fact that in the study of the behavior of other animal species one must refrain from projecting onto them exclusive characteristics of the human species, that is, anthropomorphizing them: it would be incorrect to speak of emotions in the same way in which one speaks of those humans, because we don’t know if what the mind of a pig (or any other non-human animal) feels is something similar.

After centuries in which animal behavior had been interpreted with human parameters (just think of fairy tales, or the many superstitions about owls, bats and rats for example), in the twentieth century ethology had to distance itself from this attitude and limit itself to observing animals, without making inferences about their “psychological” state. In the last twenty years, although according to part of the scientific community it is impossible to know if animals feel “emotions”, another part of the scientific community has begun to investigate this area, previously considered almost a taboo in biology.

The study on the sounds of pigs is part of this trend and explains that he has considered “animal emotions” as “intense, short-lived affective reactions to specific events”, which according to other research are not reflexes but can be explained as “elementary cognitive processes. »: They would be reactions aroused by the evaluation that an animal makes of the situation in which it finds itself. And the signals produced in such situations, whether they are sonorous like the cries of pigs, or smelling or behavioral, allow the social interactions of the animals.

The methods pioneered by Briefer and his colleagues could be used to study other species and develop new tools that promote the welfare of farmed animals. It is the overall purpose of SoundWelthe research project funded by the European Union of which this study is part, which in addition to the University of Copenhagen involved the Federal Polytechnic of Zurich and the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment of the France, and members of other European research institutions.