Relational concept learning. You may not be familiar with the phrase but you and your brain use it all the time.
Jerry is taller than Tim and Tim is taller than you so even if you’ve never met the guy, you know that you’re going be looking up at Jerry because you’ve mastered the relational concept “taller than.” It’s the kind of abstract thought that was apparently restricted to us higher-cogitating mammals -humans, chimps, dolphins and the like. That select company has suddenly become a veritable zoo of abstract thinkers, with the emergence of a new study proving that newborn ducklings can think in terms of relational concepts and apply that knowledge to new experiences.
Like many other birds and young animals, ducklings come out of the egg/womb needing to quickly figure out which of the many objects floating in front of their vision is their mother, so as to be able to stay out of harms’s way and follow her around. This imprinting behavioural pattern has been well studied, but in a new paper published in the journal Science, researchers from Oxford University in the United Kingdom tested the imprinting skills of one-day old mallard ducklings and were shocked at how logically sophisticated these skills turned out to be.
“This is an unexpected feat for a duckling, and a further reminder that “bird-brain” is quite an unfair slur,” says Antone Martinho, doctoral student at Oxford’s Department of Zoology.
The researchers exposed newly-hatched ducklings to a pair of objects that were either the same in shape or in colour or different in these respects and then tested the ducklings’ ability to apply these concepts of sameness and difference in novel situations. Those who were encouraged to imprint on a pair of spherical objects, for example, were then given the choice between following a pair of pyramid-shaped objects (same) or a pair consisting of a cube and a rectangular-shaped object (different). About three-quarters of the time, the ducklings followed the right pair, i.e., the one expressing the same relational concept as the one on which they had originally imprinted.
Commentators on the study agree that the results are a big deal, first because it shows that animals -and even very young animals- that we previously assumed were not very capable of abstract thought are indeed so capable and second because it shows that these cognitive skills are not just learned behavioural patterns but are innate and natural to the species.
“While it seems surprising at first that these one-day- old ducklings can learn something that normally only very intelligent species can do, it also makes biological sense,” says Martinho.
“When a duckling is young, it needs to be able to stay near its mother for protection, and an error in identifying her could be fatal.”
Ducks are one of the older species of birds, with related versions of today’s waterfowl said to have its roots trace back 95 million years. A study from the Department of Geoscience at the University of Calgary in Calgary, Alberta, has found that while ducks and other early bird species inherited their sense of smell from their dinosaur ancestors, they actually improved upon the dinosaur’s olfactory capabilities. Researchers found that the more primitive bird species such as ducks and flamingos have the keener sense of smell in comparison to more modern species such as crows and finches.