Feature

Biologists, ethologists, neuroscientists and even park rangers can benefit from research on nonhuman animals published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, says Gordon M. Burghardt, PhD, a professor in the departments of psychology, ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee. But first, they need to be aware that the journal exists and is relevant to their interests, he notes.

"All too often, we work in separate spheres and don't communicate our results," says Burghardt, who notes that psychologists working with nonhuman animals make up the publication's primary audience.

Burghardt, who will begin editing the journal in January 2005, hopes to change that by sharing the publication with animal researchers in other fields and also making it an attractive venue for them to publish in, he says.

For example, Burghardt will bring issues of the Journal of Comparative Psychology to the annual meeting of the Animal Behavior Society, which includes psychologists, ecologists and zoologists, and talk with meeting attendees about the journal's scope and publication process.

Burghardt also hopes to bring comparative psychology research to park rangers and others who work directly with wild animals--something he began doing in 1968. At that time, black bears in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park had become a nuisance, blocking traffic and begging for handouts from visitors. Rangers considered responding by wielding bats, but a study by Burghardt and his colleagues quickly showed why this tactic would not work.

"Previously people thought that bears were colorblind, like dogs," says Burghardt. "But we found that they have excellent visual acuity and color vision--which is useful for finding ripe berries in bushes."

As a result, a black bear can easily distinguish between a green-uniformed ranger and a tourist, the researchers found. The bears quickly learned to avoid rangers with bats and continued to harass picnicking visitors, Burghardt reported to the park service.

Due in part to research by Burghardt and his colleagues, some hikers looking to avoid bear encounters today wear bells or make loud noises to scare the animals away, he says. His group also helped identify postures and vocalizations of bears that can be used to determine whether a bear is about to attack, Burghardt notes.

Such successes show the potential of interdisciplinary collaboration, Burghardt says. To pique the interest of zoologists and other animal experts, Burghardt will appoint representatives from these fields to the Journal of Comparative Psychology's editorial board and use academics from those fields as article reviewers when appropriate, he says.

Animal experts from a variety of fields may also be attracted to the publication because of its increasingly streamlined online editorial process that is reducing the lag time between submission and acceptance, Burghardt says. Additionally, the online edition of the journal may allow article authors to share video clips of animal behavior--putting the journal ahead of the curve of other similar publications, he says. Often verbal descriptions of, for example, a newly discovered courtship ritual, fall short of the actual experience of seeing it, Burghardt notes.

But while he broadens the Journal of Comparative Psychology's appeal, Burghardt says he will not lose sight of the publication's primary audience: psychologists. As journal editor, Burghardt will work with other APA journal editors, closing in on common themes and perhaps collaborating on special issues, he says.

"To get a good, general understanding of psychological processes, we have to study a wide range of animals," says Burghardt. "Without that information we are going to have a barren understanding of our own species."

Further Reading

Visit Journal of Comparative Psychology for submission guidelines. Burghardt will accept submissions starting Jan. 1.