A new study found that ravens are capable of demonstrating self-control, reasoning, and planning, just like humans and apes can.
The study was conducted by Swedish cognitive zoologist Mathias Osvath, who tested ravens in a series of experiments and made the surprising discovery. The findings were published Thursday in the journal Science.
Osvath worked alongside graduate student Can Kabadayi for the experiments, in which they replicated a series of tests previously used to test apes’ planning abilities.
Ravens are capable of planning using advanced reasoning
The researchers worked with ravens Osvath raised since they hatched, and taught them how to use a “tool” –in this case, a stone- to open a puzzle box that contained a treat. The next day, Osvath presented the ravens the stone tool and several distracter objects, such as toys to heavy or too light to use as tools, which some selected as their new tool. Then, 15 minutes later, he presented the birds with the puzzle box.
Osvath noted that despite the 15-minute delay, the ravens chose the correct stone tool to open the box almost 80 percent of the time, and were able to successfully use the tools they chose 86 percent of the time. In doing so, the birds showed their ability to plan ahead, as well as their advanced reasoning and self-control.
“It’s not just the fact they have these skills independently,” said Osvath, who works at Lund University in Sweden, according to The Washington Post. “But to use them together to make these complex decisions, that’s what makes it so amazing.”
The researchers also conducted a test that required the birds handing a bottle cap to an experimenter in exchange for a piece of food. In that test, the ravens almost always selected the bottle cap over the distracter objects, even though they had to wait 15 minutes to receive the treat. They also showed a preference for useful objects in a test that required them passing over a smaller piece of food in exchange for either the tool or the bottle cap, and they did so even when they could only use each item after a 17-hour delay.
Osvath compared the ravens’ calculations to the kinds of decisions that humans make daily.
“Say you’re planning a trip to London, and you know how often it rains there,” he said. “So you bring an umbrella, even though it’s not raining now where you are. That’s what we are talking about here, planning based on past experience.”
Flexible planning may have evolved in separate lineages of animals
The findings have been received with excitement by many cognitive scientists around the world. The ravens’ performed so well that in some cases they exceeded abilities of some apes and four-year-old children. Previous research had focused on studying ravens’ obsession with hiding food.
One study showed that ravens hide their food more quickly if they think they’re being watched, while another found they sometimes even move their food to a second place if they realize they’re being watched.
Scientists believe the new findings could have significant ramifications for the evolution of these birds’ intelligence. Jonathan Redshaw, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia, told Scientific American the results imply that the capacity for flexible planning could have evolved at least twice in separate lineages of animals that split about 320 million years ago.
On the other hand, Alex Taylor of the University of Auckland in New Zealand believes the study suggests that planning arises predictably from similar types of selection pressures, and noted that it’s not “some kind of one-off” that just appeared once in the ape lineage.
Research is needed to assess how ravens and apes arrived at such levels of intelligence
Osvath told The Washington Post he believes that some people could be upset by his latest findings.
“When it comes to what animals can do compared to humans, there are those who cling to cognition as uniquely human,” he said. “I think it has to do with religion, with this argument over whether animals have a soul or free will, and whether we are unique in the world.”
He stressed that this “obsession with human uniqueness” misses the goal of research into animal cognitive thinking. He noted the real interrogate of cognition is how did humans and animals go from an accumulation of matter to beings with thoughts. According to Osvath, “that is one of the most astounding things in this universe.”
Osvath said the findings will also help with research that focuses on how birds and mammals split on the evolutionary road millions of years ago. Much more research is needed too, he noted, to assess if ravens and apes arrived at their sophisticated intelligence trough different ways or based on similar factors.
Source: The Washington Post