Birds Able to Cooperate and Solve Problems

on April 5, 2008

BBC News: “Rooks Team Up to Solve Problems” A team at the University of Cambridge has found that pairs of birds can solve a problem “as well as” pairs of chimps, reports BBC News.

The researchers conducted an experiment with rooks, a species of crow, to see if pairs could cooperate in order to solve a problem allowing them to reach a tray of food.

In the experiment, a food tray was placed just out of reach of each pair of captive crows. Connected to two hooks on the tray, however, and threaded into the crows’ cage in two places was a single piece of string. The two ends of the string dangled 24 inches (60cm) apart, too far for either crow to reach simultaneously.

Thus, the crows had a challenge: if only one bird pulled on either string, it would pull the other end out of the cage and (eventually) pull the string out of the hooks on the tray. So would the crows, without any training, figure out how to team up, with each pulling one end of the string, enabling the crows to move the tray in range of their hungry beaks?

“They performed remarkably well—as well as chimps when they were presented with the same test.”

Eight pairs of crows were tested, with each ultimately cooperating and solving the challenge. Some pairs solved the task almost immediately, whereas others took a day or two before figuring out how to solve the puzzle.

Amanda Seed, lead author of the research paper (published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B), explained, “They performed remarkably well—as well as chimps when they were presented with the same test.”

The crows, however, did stumble on a second test. The setup was the same in the new challenge, but this time one crow was placed in a neighboring cage connected by a one-way flap. The researchers wondered if one crow would wait for the other to enter the cage before attempting to pull the tray in. But it seemed the crows just weren’t that patient.

The researchers concluded that while the crows were able to cooperate, they may not have understood the necessity of cooperation, unlike chimps who surmounted the second challenge.

It will be interesting to see what becomes of the next planned experiments with other types of birds to determine if they exhibit the cooperative behavior. Interestingly, the evolutionary caricature—affirmed in popular culture—is that great apes, and especially chimpanzees, are almost human and are our close evolutionary cousins, yet studies have demonstrated that several genera of birds, cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), and even elephants are also highly intelligent.

Many animals are superior to humans in one way or another (speed, strength, special capabilities, etc.); some are even intelligent enough to communicate with humans in certain basic ways. But as intelligent as some animals may be, the Bible explains that only humans are made in the image of God.


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