Coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) are amazing fish. Indigenous to the Pacific Northwest, they begin their lives in freshwater streams and then relocate to the open ocean. But when a Coho salmon reaches breeding age, it’ll return to the waterway of its birth, sometimes traveling 400 miles (644 kilometers) to get there.
Enter the late Arthur Davis Hasler. While an ecologist and biologist at the University of Wisconsin, he was intrigued by the question of how these creatures find their home streams. And in 1960, he used a basic tenet of science — the hypothesis — to find out.
So what is a hypothesis? A hypothesis is a tentative, testable explanation for an observed phenomenon in nature. Hypotheses are narrow in scope — unlike theories, which cover a broad range of observable phenomena and draw from many different lines of evidence. Meanwhile, a prediction is a result you’d expect to get if your hypothesis or theory is accurate.
So back to 1960 and Hasler and those salmon. One unverified idea was that Coho salmon used eyesight to locate their home streams. Hasler set out to test this notion (or hypothesis). First, he rounded up several fish who’d already returned to their native streams. Next, he blindfolded some of the captives — but not all of them — before dumping his salmon into a faraway stretch of water. If the eyesight hypothesis was correct, then Hasler could expect fewer of the blindfolded fish to return to their home streams.
Things didn’t work out that way. The fish without blindfolds came back at the same rate as their blindfolded counterparts. (Other experiments demonstrated that smell, and not sight, is the key to the species’ homing ability.)
Although Hasler’s blindfold hypothesis was disproven, others have fared better. Today, we’re looking at three of the best-known experiments in history — and the hypotheses they tested.
1. Ivan Pavlov and His Dogs (1903-1935)
The Hypothesis: If dogs are susceptible to conditioned responses (drooling), then a dog who is regularly exposed to the same neutral stimulus (metronome/bell) before it receives food will associate this neutral stimulus with the act of eating. Eventually, the dog should begin to drool at a predictable rate when it encounters said stimulus — even before any actual food is offered.
The Experiment: A Nobel Prize-winner and outspoken critic of Soviet communism, Ivan Pavlov is synonymous with man’s best friend. In 1903, the Russian-born scientist kicked off a decades-long series of experiments involving dogs and conditioned responses.
Offer a plate of food to a hungry dog and it’ll salivate. In this context, the stimulus (the food) will automatically trigger a particular response (the drooling). The latter is an innate, unlearned reaction to the former.
By contrast, the rhythmic sound of a metronome or bell is a neutral stimulus. To a dog, the noise has no inherent meaning and if the animal has never heard it before, the sound won’t provoke an instinctive reaction. But the sight of food sure will.
So when Pavlov and his lab assistants played the sound of the metronome/bell before feeding sessions, the researchers conditioned test dogs to mentally link metronomes/bells with mealtime. Due to repeated exposure, the noise alone started to make the dogs’ mouths water before they were given food.
According to “Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science” by biographer Daniel P. Todes, Pavlov’s big innovation here was his discovery that he could quantify the reaction of each pooch by measuring the amount of saliva it generated. Every canine predictably drooled at its own consistent rate when he or she encountered a personalized (and artificial) food-related cue.
Pavlov and his assistants used conditioned responses to look at other hypotheses about animal physiology, as well. In one notable experiment, a dog was tested on its ability to tell time. This particular pooch always received food when it heard a metronome click at the rate of 60 strokes per minute. But it never got any food after listening to a slower, 40-strokes-per-minute beat. Lo and behold, Pavlov’s animal began to salivate in response to the faster rhythm — but not the slower one. So clearly, it could tell the two rhythmic beats apart.
The Verdict: With the right conditioning — and lots of patience — you can make a hungry dog respond to neutral stimuli by salivating on cue in a way that’s both predictable and scientifically quantifiable.
2. Isaac Newton’s Radiant Prisms (1665)
The Hypothesis: If white sunlight is a mixture of all the colors in the visible spectrum — and these travel at varying wavelengths — then each color will refract at a different angle when a beam of sunlight passes through a glass prism.
The Experiments: Color was a scientific mystery before Isaac Newton came along. During the summer of 1665, he started experimenting with glass prisms from the safety of a darkened room in Cambridge, England.
He cut a quarter-inch (0.63-centimeter) circular hole into one of the window shutters, allowing a single beam of sunlight to enter the place. When Newton held up a prism to this ray, an oblong patch of multicolored light was projected onto the opposite wall.
This contained segregated layers of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet light. From top to bottom, this patch measured 13.5 inches (33.65 centimeters) tall, yet it was only 2.6 inches (6.6 centimeters) across.
Newton deduced that these vibrant colors had been hiding within the sunlight itself, but the prism bent (or “refracted”) them at different angles, which separated the colors out.
Still, he wasn’t 100 percent sure. So Newton replicated the experiment with one small change. This time, he took a second prism and had it intercept the rainbow-like patch of light. Once the refracted colors entered the new prism, they recombined into a circular white sunbeam. In other words, Newton took a ray of white light, broke it apart into a bunch of different colors and then reassembled it. What a neat party trick!
The Verdict: Sunlight really is a blend of all the colors in the rainbow — and yes, these can be individually separated via light refraction.
3. Robert Paine’s Revealing Starfish (1963-1969)
The Hypothesis: If predators limit the populations of the organisms they attack, then we’d expect the prey species to become more common after the eradication of a major predator.
The Experiment: Meet Pisaster ochraceus, also known as the purple sea star (or the purple starfish if you prefer).
Using an extendable stomach, the creature feeds on mussels, limpets, barnacles, snails and other hapless victims. On some seaside rocks (and tidal pools) along the coast of Washington state, this starfish is the apex predator.
The animal made Robert Paine a scientific celebrity. An ecologist by trade, Paine was fascinated by the environmental roles of top predators. In June 1963, he kicked off an ambitious experiment along Washington state’s Mukkaw Bay. For years on end, Paine kept a rocky section of this shoreline completely starfish-free.
It was hard work. Paine had to regularly pry wayward sea stars off “his” outcrop — sometimes with a crowbar. Then he’d chuck them into the ocean.
Before the experiment, Paine observed 15 different species of animals and algae inhabiting the area he decided to test. By June 1964 — one year after his starfish purge started — that number had dropped to eight.
Unchecked by purple sea stars, the barnacle population skyrocketed. Subsequently, these were replaced by California mussels, which came to dominate the terrain. By anchoring themselves to rocks in great numbers, the mussels edged out other life-forms. That made the outcrop uninhabitable to most former residents: Even sponges, anemones and algae — organisms that Pisaster ochraceus doesn’t eat — were largely evicted.
All those species continued to thrive on another piece of shoreline that Paine left untouched. Later experiments convinced him that Pisaster ochraceus is a “keystone species,” a creature who exerts disproportionate influence over its environment. Eliminate the keystone and the whole system gets disheveled.
The Verdict: Apex predators don’t just affect the animals that they hunt. Removing a top predator sets off a chain reaction that can fundamentally transform an entire ecosystem.