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Pigeons found to measure up in numbers game

Dec. 23, 2011
Courtesy of Science
and World Science staff

Pi­geons ri­val ma­caque mon­keys in their abil­ity to fol­low cer­tain nu­mer­i­cal rules, ac­cord­ing to a new re­port. 

Un­der­stand­ing ab­stract con­cepts like nu­mer­i­cal rules is an abil­ity hu­mans gen­er­ally like to claim for them­selves or to our clos­est ev­o­lu­tion­ary rel­a­tives. But sci­en­tists say it’s be­com­ing in­creas­ingly clear that this view un­der­es­ti­mates the abil­i­ties of many oth­er ani­mals. Birds in par­tic­u­lar have been found to share a num­ber of abil­i­ties once thought un­ique to hu­mans, apes and mon­keys—including tool crea­t­ion, tool use and mem­o­ry for spe­cif­ic events.

Pigeons sorted pic­tures re­pre­sent­ing num­bers on com­puter screens such as the above. (Im­age cour­tesy Da­mian Scarf)


E. M. Bran­non of Co­lum­bia Uni­ver­sity and col­leagues showed in a 1998 pa­per pub­lished in the re­search jour­nal Sci­ence that ma­caques could put im­ages in or­der based on the num­ber of ob­jects pic­tured in each im­age.

The new study put pi­geons through the same test.

Damian Scarf of the Uni­vers­ity of Ota­go in New Zea­land and col­leagues found that pi­geons share the mon­keys’ abil­ity, per­form­ing just as well. The find­ings raise the in­ter­est­ing ques­tion of wheth­er this nu­mer­i­cal com­pe­tence arose in an an­ces­tor shared by birds and pri­ma­tes, or wheth­er it evolved in­de­pend­ently in the two lin­eages, the re­search­ers say.

“Over the past two dec­ades the in­tel­lec­tu­al sta­tus of birds has ris­en marked­ly,” they wrote, re­porting their find­ings in the Dec. 23 is­sue of Sci­ence. The new find­ings sug­gest that pi­geons are “well perched” to help re­veal the ev­o­lu­tion­ary pres­sures “and neu­ral struc­tures re­quired for ab­stract nu­mer­i­cal cog­ni­tion,” they added.

In another recent study on bird smarts, a group in­cluding Alex H. Taylor of the University of Auckland, N.Z. found that New Cale­do­nian crows could fi­gure out how to raise a li­quid in a con­tain­er by drop­ping stones in. That study was pub­lished Dec. 14 on­line in the jou­rnal PLoS One. Fur­ther tests showed the crows' per­for­mances weren’t based on simple learn­ing—so they evi­dently grasped the mech­anics be­hind the stone trick, Tay­lor and col­leagues added.

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Pigeons rival macaque monkeys in their ability to follow certain numerical rules, according to a new report. Understanding abstract concepts like numerical rules is an ability humans generally like to claim for themselves or to our closest evolutionary relatives. But scientists say it’s becoming increasingly clear that this view underestimates the abilities of many other lineages. Birds in particular have been found to share a number of abilities once thought unique to humans, apes and monkeys—including tool creation, tool use and memory for specific events. Almost fifteen years ago, researchers showed in a paper published in the research journal Science that macaques could put images in order based on the number of objects pictured in each image. The new study put pigeons through the same test. Damian Scarf of the University of Otago in New Zealand and colleagues found that pigeons share the monkeys’ ability, performing just as well. The findings raise the interesting question of whether this numerical competence arose in an ancestor shared by birds and primates, or whether it evolved independently in the two lineages, the researchers say. “Over the past two decades the intellectual status of birds has risen markedly,” they wrote, reporting their findings in the Dec. 23 issue of Science. The new findings suggest that pigeons are “well perched” to help reveal the evolutionary pressures “and neural structures required for abstract numerical cognition,” they added.