Published: Sat, July 15, 2017
Sci-tech | By Carrie Guzman

No bird-brain here: Ravens can plan ahead

No bird-brain here: Ravens can plan ahead

One hour later, the ravens were given the stone, as well as several "distractors" such as a wooden wheel, a wooden ball, a metal pipe and a toy vehicle. Despite the delay, the ravens chose the correct tool almost 80 percent of the time, and successfully used the tools they selected 86 percent of the time. The ravens may not be thinking about the future at all, and are instead just choosing the object with the strongest association with the food, that is, the tool. "A second, and maybe even more important aspect, is that the ravens' planning abilities are not limited to specific everyday situations ravens are used to and probably especially endowed for (such as foraging or food caching), but can be applied to totally novel situations".

Despite the temptation of an immediate reward, the ravens preferred to hold out for the better quality reward inside the box, opting for the tool or token 70 percent of the time.

In other tests, ravens were presented with a token they could use to trade for something better at a later time. They were then offered this choice a second time, and chose the food, showing that they were not choosing the tool because it was a highly positive object, but because of its use in the future. Also, the ravens have their gestures, and they're used to communicate various items.

The study, published yesterday in Science, shows that ravens (Corvus corax) can anticipate the nature, time and location of future events based on prior experiences.

The ravens were as good with tools as apes, and in some ways better at bartering, outperforming orangutans, bonobos and chimpanzees, according to the study. In this exercise, the ravens were only allowed to select one item overall. In the second experiment, the gap was extended to 17 hours, and the success rate increased to 88%.

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Osvath says that above all, ravens are playful, and in interacting with them, one gets a sense of each individual's different personality and intelligence. The birds were given the choice of a dog biscuit right now or the option to select a stone or bottle top and receive a greater reward later: in most cases the birds made a decision to wait. This study suggests there may be some scientific basis to the idea.

"One of [our] most interesting results is that intelligence is not restricted to human lineage", said Kabadayi. Looking for the evolutionary pressures that lead to this kind of flexible cognition can help us to understand why humans, our close relatives, and a handful of other species ended up the way we are. A fifth bird was meant to be involved in the study but it was deemed too neophobic - or scared of new things - to take part. "This is very important for understanding how intelligence evolves".

Osvath hopes to conduct more studies on the birds' cognitive abilities. They even have a brain structure that's analogous to the mammalian neocortex - the part responsible for higher order functioning like conscious thought, sensory perception, spatial reasoning and language. Even monkeys have failed to show it.

The independent emergence of flexible planning might be an example of convergent evolution, a phenomenon by which an environment selects for strikingly similar adaptations among unrelated lineages.

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