Jul 14, 2016

Ducklings Are Surprisingly Smart, Abstract Thinkers

Newly hatched ducklings are capable of abstract thinking, according to research that finds these little young birds quickly get the concepts of sam and different.

This ability had only been known in animals whose intelligence is well documented, such as humans, other apes, crows and parrots. Ducklings even take the skill to a whole other level above the other animals that are not of our own species.

"To our knowledge this is the first demonstration of a non-human organism learning to discriminate between abstract relational concepts without any reinforcement training," Alex Kacelnik of Oxford University's Department of Zoology said in a press release.

"The other animals that have demonstrated this ability have all done so by being repeatedly rewarded for correct performance, while our ducklings did it spontaneously, thanks to their predisposition to imprint when very young," he added. "And because imprinting happens so quickly, the ducklings learned to discriminate relational concepts much faster than other species, and with a similar level of precision."

Ducklings with their mother in River Cherwell at Oxford, U.K.
He and his team explained that imprinting, which allows ducklings to identify and follow their mother, can occur in as little as 15 minutes after the baby birds hatch. The scientists say that it is a powerful form of learning that can allow ducklings to follow any moving object, so long as they see it within the species' typical "sensitive period" for imprinting.

Kacelnik and colleagues initially presented ducklings with a pair of objects either the same as, or different from, each other in shape or in color. The objects moved around the ducklings in a circle, operated by a mobile-type motor from above. At this stage, the ducklings imprinted on the pairs of moving objects that were presented to them.

Next, each duckling was allowed to follow one of two pairs of objects composed of shapes or colors to which the duckling had not previously been exposed. For example, if an individual duckling had originally been exposed to a pair of spherical objects, in the choice test it might have had to choose between following a pair of pyramids (same) or a pair made up of one cube and one cuboid (different).

The ducklings showed that they understood the concepts of "same" and "different," since they elected to follow objects that matched one of these two relationships, depending on what they had imprinted on earlier, even though the baby birds had never before seen these newer sets of particular items and colors.

Read more at Discovery News

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