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Ravens show things to partners, a rare ability, study finds

Nov. 29, 2011
Courtesy of Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
and World Science staff

Wild rav­ens pur­pose­fully show ob­jects to their mat­ing part­ner­s—the first time this be­hav­ior has been ob­served in the wild ex­cept in the clos­est rel­a­tives of hu­mans, sci­en­tists re­port.

The re­search­ers con­sid­er these ac­tions as part of a class of be­hav­iors called deic­tic ges­tures, which in­clude point­ing and show­ing and which are aimed at draw­ing at­ten­tion to an ex­ter­nal ob­ject. Such ges­tures are thought to re­flect com­plex in­tel­li­gence and to rep­re­sent the start­ing point for the use of sym­bols and there­fore lan­guage.

Courtesy Max-Planck-Gesellschaft


In the new study, Si­mone Pi­ka of the Max Planck In­sti­tute for Or­nith­ol­o­gy in Mu­nich, Ger­ma­ny, and Thom­as Bugn­yar of the Uni­vers­ity of Vi­en­na ob­served wild rav­ens in the Cum­ber­land Wild Park in Grü­nau, Aus­tria. They con­clud­ed that rav­ens use their beaks like hands to show and of­fer ob­jects such as moss, stones and twigs. 

These ges­tures were mainly aimed at part­ners of the op­po­site sex and “re­sulted in fre­quent ori­enta­t­ion of re­cip­i­ents to the ob­ject and the sig­nallers,” a sum­mary of the re­search from the Max Planck in­sti­tute said. Deic­tic ges­tures are rare out­side of hu­mans, though some chimps have been seen us­ing “di­rected scratch­es” to in­di­cate spots on their bod­ies that they want a part­ner to groom, Pi­ka and Bugn­yar added.

Ravens are song­birds be­long­ing to the corvid family along with crows and mag­pies, and are un­usu­ally in­tel­li­gent birds, the re­search­ers said. Their scores on var­i­ous in­tel­li­gence tests are si­m­i­lar to those of great apes, and rav­en mat­ing pairs show rel­a­tively com­plex com­mu­nica­t­ion and high coop­era­t­ion, they added.

“Ges­ture stud­ies have too long fo­cused on com­mu­nica­tive skills of pri­ma­tes on­ly. The mys­tery of the ori­gins of hu­man lan­guage, how­ev­er, can only be solved if we look at the big­ger pic­ture and al­so con­sid­er the com­plex­ity of the com­mu­nica­t­ion sys­tems of oth­er an­i­mal groups,” said Pi­ka.

The study is published in the Nov. 29 issue of the re­search jour­nal Na­ture Com­mun­i­ca­tions.


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Wild ravens purposefully show objects to their mating partners—the first time this behavior has been observed in the wild except in the closest relatives of humans, scientists report. The researchers consider these actions as part of a class of behaviors called deictic gestures, which include pointing and showing and which are aimed at drawing attention to an external object. Such gestures are thought to reflect complex intelligence and to represent the starting point for the use of symbols and therefore language. In the new research, Simone Pika of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Munich, Germany, and Thomas Bugnyar of the University of Vienna observed wild ravens in the Cumberland Wild Park in Grünau, Austria. They concluded that ravens use their beaks like hands to show and offer objects such as moss, stones and twigs. These gestures were mainly aimed at partners of the opposite sex and “resulted in frequent orientation of recipients to the object and the signallers,” a summary of the research from the Max Planck institute said. Deictic gestures are rare outside of humans, though some chimps have been seen using “directed scratches” to indicate spots on their bodies that they want a partner to groom, Pika and Bugnyar added. Ravens are songbirds belonging to the corvid family along with crows and magpies, and are unusually intelligent birds, the researchers said. Their scores on various intelligence tests are similar to those of great apes, and raven mating pairs show relatively complex communication and high cooperation, they added. “Gesture studies have too long focused on communicative skills of primates only. The mystery of the origins of human language, however, can only be solved if we look at the bigger picture and also consider the complexity of the communication systems of other animal groups,” said Pika.