Researchers have discovered that newborn ducks can understand abstract concepts such as sameness and difference, with no training whatsoever.
Conventional wisdom says that newborn ducks will quickly locate and stick close by to the first suitable mother figure they can find. This ability can be known as imprinting, and we often witness this in the form of a line of ducklings waddling behind a chicken, a dog, a cat, or even a person. Because of this, ducks are often considered not to be very smart, “bird-brained,” so to speak. However, scientists reveal that ducklings are smarter than we think.
Zoologists Antone Martinho III and Alex Kacelnik at Oxford University conducted a study, and found that a newly hatched duck is able to understand concepts like ‘same’ and ‘different,’ an ability that is considered to be attributed only to highly intelligent animals such as apes, and several types of birds, including crows and parrots. Surprisingly, the ducklings even apply these concepts to never-before-seen objects without being taught whatsoever.
How do we know ducklings are smarter than we think?
To explore how ducks think, researchers will begin the experiment on the day they were born. The ducklings are exposed to different objects, pairs that were either different or same, both color and shape. After that, the newborn ducks are shown totally different objects; the majority of the ducks followed the pair that have the same relation to what they had originally seen. Whether it was one of color or shape, sameness or difference — ducklings followed those objects.
The other species of animals that have been proven to have this ability only master relational matching behavior after training, which involves rewarding correct associations and punishing incorrect ones. Contrarily, ducks seems to be born with this ability. “To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration of a non-human organism learning to discriminate between abstract relational concepts without any reinforcement training,” said co-author Alex Kacelnik, of Oxford University’s zoology department, in a statement.
How are these newly hatched ducks able to perform such seemingly-advanced cognitive tasks? Probably, there’s more to imprinting than meets the eye.
“Imprinting allows ducks to identify who their mother is on the first day of their life,” Martinho says. “In this experiment we are essentially hijacking that normal, but remarkable, behavior. We already knew that ducks would be very good at learning quickly because that’s what they are built to do. But the fact that, within that behavior, they can learn something abstract was certainly startling. And they do it quite a bit faster than we see in other species.”
“That’s more of a testament I think to their innate ability for imprinting, coupled with their ability to recognize abstract concepts, rather than simply being faster at abstract concepts than other species,” he adds. “This is two abilities combining to produce a stunning result.”
Edward Wasserman, an experimental psychologist at the University of Iowa who commented on the study in Science, said the study is add-on to the understanding of an animal’s abstract thought. First, it revealed that abstract thinking exists in a bird considered not particularly intelligent. However, it also indicated that understanding abstract concepts can happen in animals just hours old, meaning that this ability doesn’t require prior learning. Finally, it conveyed that learning could happen, without instruction or a system of reward and punishment.
“Those three things produce a powerful mix that makes this an unprecedented and important project,” says Wasserman, who found out that pigeons can recognize and categorize objects, much as human toddlers do, and assisted a Russian team in discovering how crows can match objects without going through training.
He adds that being able to discriminate sameness and difference is a more advanced cognitive task than just recognizing what the mother looks like standing still. When ducks dive, fly, or move behind a bush, their shape and appearance changes to the viewer, which would cause ducklings relying on an exact shape to lose sight of what they’re looking at.
“If animals are just taking a sensory snapshot, something akin to a photo where it’s a case of, ‘I see my mother, I remember exactly what my mother looks like at this moment in time and I’m going to use this image ingrained in my brain to follow her’—that’s not going to work,” he says.
This research showed that abstract thinking is actually more common among animal species than previously perceived. “The suggestion from this evidence is that relational learning is something far more widespread in the animal kingdom than we might have suspected,” Wasserman says. Other examples are mounting: One study’s findings even indicated that honeybees can distinguish between the paintings of Monet and Picasso.
If that’s the truth, then it poses another fascinating question about the origin of abstract thought. As Wasserman says: “Did the wheel get reinvented many times, or might relational learning be exceptionally old, and we’re just now with our very young science discovering it?”
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