Why Scientists Are Training Wolves to Run on a Treadmill

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Researchers at the Wolf Science Center in Ernstbrunn, Austria, have constructed what is perhaps the world’s largest treadmill. Built not for fitness-loving scientists but for the wolves and dogs under their care, the treadmill was designed to help researchers gather valuable information on animal cooperation and socialization.

Kim Kortekaas, a researcher at the Wolf Science Center, tells Scientific American that scientists often make up puzzles or problems for animals to solve together in order to test their cooperation—but these puzzles aren’t necessarily akin to anything the animals would encounter in the wild. She explains, “Many studies test cooperation in animals with the help of equipment where pairs of animals have to, for example, pull or push something together to be able to receive a reward. However, many of these experiments are very artificial and don't take into account the ecology of the animal.”

While wolves are unlikely to come across a treadmill in the wild, the researchers claim the running track will allow them to study wolf cooperation in a more natural setting, since wolves often run and hunt together. Kortekaas says, “The treadmill should be a more natural way of testing how willing the animals are to work and run together and afterwards share their food. Does it depend on their partner? If yes, can we also see this in their behavior or physiology?”

But before researchers could use the treadmill to study cooperation, they had to train the wolves to use it. They started by teaching the animals to touch a target with their noses, then hung the target over the treadmill, slowly increasing its speed as the animals gradually acclimated to the moving walkway. Now, after a laborious training process, both dogs and wolves at the center are comfortable and enthusiastic treadmill users—which means, much like the canines, the scientists’ behavioral study will soon be up and running.

[h/t Scientific American]