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July 04, 2013

If birds are this smart, how smart were dinosaurs?

I continue to be fascinated and astounded by how intelligent birds are. A new paper in PLOS ONE [1,2,3] by Auersperg, Kacelnik and von Bayern (at Vienna, Oxford and the Max-Planck-Institute for Ornithology, respectively) uses Goffin’s Cockatoos to demonstrate that these birds are capable of learning and performing a complex sequence of tasks in order to get a treat. Here's the authors describing the setup:

Here we exposed Goffins to a novel five-step means-means-end task based on a sequence of multiple locking devices blocking one another. After acquisition, we exposed the cockatoos to modifications of the task such as reordering of the lock order, removal of one or more locks, or alterations of the functionality of one or more locks. Our aim was to investigate innovative problem solving under controlled conditions, to explore the mechanism of learning, and to advance towards identifying what it is that animals learn when they master a complex new sequential task.

The sequence was sufficiently long that the authors argue the goal the cockatoos were seeking must have been an abstract goal. The implication is that the cockatoos are capable of a kind of abstract, goal-oriented planning and problem solving that is similar to what humans routinely exhibit. Here's what the problem solving looks like:

The authors' conclusions put things nicely into context, and demonstrate the appropriate restraint with claims about what is going on inside the cockatoos' heads (something we humans could do better at in interpreting each others' behaviors):

The main challenge of cognitive research is to map the processes by which animals gather and use information to come up with innovative solutions to novel problems, and this is not achieved by invoking mentalistic concepts as explanations for complex behaviour. Dissecting the subjects’ performance to expose their path towards the solution and their response to task modifications can be productive; even extraordinary demonstrations of innovative capacity are not proof of the involvement of high-level mental faculties, and conversely, high levels of cognition could be involved in seemingly simple tasks. The findings from the transfer tests allow us to evaluate some of the cognition behind the Goffins’ behaviour. Although the exact processes still remain only partially understood, our results largely support the supposition that subjects learn by combining intense exploratory behavior, learning from consequences, and some sense of goal directedness.

So it seems that the more we learn about birds, the more remarkably intelligent some species appear to be. Which begs a question: if some bird species are so smart, how smart were dinosaurs? Unfortunately, we don't have much of an idea because we don't know how much bird brains have diverged from their ancestral non-avian dinosaur form. But, I'm going to go out on a limb here, and suggest that they may have been just as clever as modern birds.


[1] Auersperg, Kacelnik and von Bayern, Explorative Learning and Functional Inferences on a Five-Step Means-Means-End Problem in Goffin’s Cockatoos (Cacatua goffini) PLOS ONE 8(7): e68979 (2013).

[2] Some time ago, PLOS ONE announced that they were changing their name from "PLoS ONE" to "PLOS ONE". But confusingly, on their own website, they give the citation to new papers as "PLoS ONE". I still see people use both, and I have a slight aesthetic preference for "PLoS" over "PLOS" (a preference perhaps rooted in the universal understanding that ALL CAPS is like yelling on the Interwebs, and every school child knows that yelling for no reason is rude).

[3] As it turns out these same authors have some other interesting results with Goffin's Cockatoos, including tool making and use. io9 has a nice summary, plus a remarkable video of the tool-making in action.

posted July 4, 2013 08:07 PM in Obsession with birds | permalink


You'll be amazing how smart birds are :)

I know, cause I have 2 parrots

Posted by: Acne Wash at July 11, 2013 12:00 PM

on their own website, they give the citation to new papers as "PLoS ONE"

Posted by: Hotel Developments NYC at July 11, 2013 12:08 PM