Newborn ducklings capable of comprehending complex concepts like ‘same’ and ‘different’, study finds

Newborn ducklings capable of comprehending complex concepts like ‘same’ and ‘different’, study finds

A latest study, published in the journal Science, has suggested that some birds are smarter than previously thought.

The study performed by zoologists Antone Martinho III and Alex Kacelnik at Oxford University discovered that infant ducklings can comprehend complex concepts like ‘same’ and ‘different’, abstractions that are generally thought to be beyond the capacity of nearly all animals.

In an accompanying analysis, University of Iowa experimental psychologist Edward Wasserman wrote that the claim that abstract relational thinking is a humans’ unique ability can’t be supported any longer.

He mentioned, “Although animals may not be able to speak, studying their behavior may be a suitable substitute for assaying their thoughts, and this in turn may allow us to jettison the stale canard that thought without language is impossible”.

For the interpretation of ducklings' thoughts, Martinho and Kacelnik carried out an experiment on them the day they took birth. It was based on the ability of the animals to imprint, to recognize notable figures like their mothers soon after delivery.

When a duckling imprints, it remains with the ‘mother’ consistently, sprawling her just like the way the ones in ‘Make Way for Ducklings’ do.

It is true even when that object isn’t really a duck. In the study, 24 hours after hatching the ducklings were exposed to a pair of tiny, shiny colored shapes circling over their pens like objects on a mobile. A few pairs possessed identical shapes, while others had different ones. It was the ‘priming period’ for what the researchers have called ‘same-different’ test.

The baby birds were introduced to two fresh pairs of objects, one of them had same shapes, and the other possessed distinct ones. Most of ducklings followed the pair of shapes with the same relationship as the pair with which they got primed.

Same was the case when the researchers tweaked the experiment, substituting the color of the two objects in the pairing instead of the shapes.

According to a report in NY TIMES by STEPH YIN, "The ability to make inferences from same and different, once thought to be unique to humans, is viewed as a cornerstone of abstract intelligent thought. A new study, however, has shown that what psychologists call same-different discrimination is present in creatures generally seen as unintelligent: newborn ducklings."

First, they took 1-day-old ducklings and exposed them to a pair of moving objects. The two objects were either the same or different in shape or color. Then they exposed each duckling to two entirely new pairs of moving objects.

Adding ducklings to the list — particularly untrained newborn ducklings — suggests that the ability to compare abstract concepts “is far more necessary to a wider variety of animals’ survival than we previously thought,” Dr. Martinho said. He believes the ability is so crucial because it helps animals consider context when identifying objects in their environment.

"Within hours of hatching, ducklings and many other young birds rapidly learn the traits of their mothers. This process, known as imprinting, is one of the fastest and most reliable forms of learning in nature. Typically, it ensures that the vulnerable youngsters follow the right individuals around. But ducklings can also mistakenly imprint on birds of the wrong species, humans, or even inanimate moving objects like bouncing balls," according to a news report published by The Atlantic.

“In a way, imprinting appears to be simple,” says Kacelnik, who studies animal behavior at the University of Oxford. “But it’s extremely complex because mum is an extremely complex collection of properties. So what is it that a young animal stores in its brain to recognize the identity of its mother?”

“I’m very impressed with the results, and the fact that after so many studies on imprinting, nothing like this has been done before,” says Nathan Emery from Queen Mary University of London, who studies bird behavior and was not involved in the research. “I think this has got the potential to revolutionize our field and will be discussed for years to come.”

According to a story published on the topic by Pbs, "The baby fowl can decipher abstract relationships between shapes and colors based on a new discovery from the University of Oxford. But unlike with animals generally thought to be intelligent, such as parrots and monkeys, the ducklings did not require any training to show off this mental talent."

“This project began in 2015, during the middle of last summer,” Oxford cognitive scientist Antone Martinho said, as a means to investigate the foundations of imprinting. Imprinting is a type of early learning, best known in birds, where an offspring becomes behaviorally attached to the first thing that it sees. “It’s what they use exclusively to learn through mothers during the first week of life,” Martinho told the NewsHour.

The team found that three-quarters of the ducklings preferred to follow the objects with the same relationship shown during the imprinting stage. This trend held true in the reverse scenario. If ducklings were exposed to two differently shaped objects early on, say cube-sphere, then they would pick contrasting over identical objects in later trials. Plus, the ducklings showed the same pattern when the team tested colors rather than shapes.