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The science of listening to animals

Céline Tallet is an ethologist with INRA’s Joint Research Unit for the Physiology, Environment, and Genetics of Animals and Livestock Systems (PEGASE), located in Rennes. More specifically, she is part of the SysPorc (1) research group; her work focuses on understanding the interactions between humans and pigs, with the goal of improving livestock living conditions and well-being while simultaneously facilitating the work of farmers.

Céline Tallet. © INRA
By Emmanuelle Manck, translated by Jessica Pearce
Updated on 04/14/2016
Published on 06/26/2015

Using ethology to improve conditions for livestock

Even when she was in high school, Tallet knew that she wanted to study ethology, the science of animal behavior. Indeed, she changed universities several times to pursue her goal. In 2000, as she was doing an internship at INRA as part of her undergraduate degree in Biology, Tallet realized that ethology was “a science that could clearly play a role in improving conditions for livestock.” She did research that showed that a chick’s sense of smell was crucial to its growth, which highlighted the need for feed manufacturers to create attractive foods. During her PhD, she discovered that sheep become attached to farmers when they are bottle fed not only because they need human contact, but also because they are attracted to the food. In 2007, she did a post-doc at the Institute of Animal Science in Prague to “switch research topics and become more independent.”

Pigs reveal their emotions via vocalizations

“I have studied how piglets communicate using sounds, such as grunts or cries, to see if we can pick up on an animal’s emotional state from their vocalizations,” explains Tallet. She continues, “I have also examined whether humans can correctly evaluate the sounds produced by piglets placed in positive versus negative situations.” If farmers listen carefully to their pigs, they can, even from a distance, determine if one of them is scared, feeling bad, or, quite the opposite, feeling good. 

Accounting for a pig’s natural need to interact with humans

Since 2009, Tallet has been working at the INRA center located in Saint-Gilles, near Rennes. Her focus is the relationship between humans and pigs; her goal is develop ways of raising livestock that promote animal welfare, while also facilitating the work of farmers. In particular, she has been working on an alternative to castration. She says, “Because uncastrated male pigs are said to be more aggressive, we compared their behavior with that of castrated males. We found that uncastrated males are more active and interact more with others, but not necessarily in a negative way, and they are not more aggressive towards people. However, they do have a need to interact more with farmers, which is tricky to manage because uncastrated males can weigh up to 100 kg!” At present, Tallet is studying the vocal communication that farmers use with pigs. It appears that a pig can become accustomed to a human voice in utero and, once born, can be calmed by hearing that same voice. It is also important to talk to pigs as part of the taming process. Tallet is additionally interested in determining whether taming one member of a pig herd can serve to tame the others in the group via behavioral contagion.                    

(1) The Pig in Livestock Systems

Mini-CV

  • 35 years old
  • DEA (diploma of advanced studies) in Behavioral Biology from Université Paris 13 in 2002
  • PhD in Cognitive Ethology from Université Blaise Pascal in Clermont-Ferrand in 2006
  • Post-doc at the Institute of Animal Science in Prague (Czech Republic) from 2007 to 2008
  • Member of the French Society for the Study of Animal Behavior and the International Society for Applied Ethology