Griffin the Parrot Demonstrates the Ability to Share

University of Lincoln

Parrots are highly intelligent animals. The most famously brainy parrot, an African gray named Alex, was described as having the intelligence of a 5 year old child and the emotional capacity of a 2 year old. After Alex’s death in 2007, Dr. Irene Pepperberg from Harvard sought to continue the work she had been focusing on Alex with another African gray from her lab named Griffin.

Though 19-year-old Griffin has not yet reached the level of Alex’s intellect (Griffin is still twelve years younger than Alex was at the time of his death, after all), he is still a highly impressive bird. The most recent paper is a follow-up study from work with Griffin from Dr. Pepperberg along with a team of international colleagues has shown that he appears to be able of understanding the advantages of sharing. The paper was published in Animal Cognition.

In the experiment, Griffin was partnered with a human. A subordinate bird in the lab was also tested separately. They were each able to take turns and choose one of four cups that held a different consequence. The purple cup meant that nobody received a treat. The orange cup only gives the partner a treat, while the pink cup only gives the selector a treat. The green cup was the “sharing” cup, as both partners received a treat when that cup was selected. 

In a previous study, human partners played different roles by favoring a certain color cup, while one partner would copy whatever the bird chose. The birds tended to act similarly to those with an agenda, by giving to the generous partner and being stingy with the selfish partner, but did not act as consistently with the copier. Researchers theorized that the birds weren’t able to pick up on the mirroring from the human, because it sharply contrasted with humans who exhibited set behavior. Most of the time, Griffin chose the green sharing cup when dealing with the copycat, while the subordinate bird did not change behavior. While it did suggest an understanding of reciprocity with Griffin, the researchers suggested that the partners with certain motivations may have been skewing the results, and the latest study only uses a copycat partner.

Griffin, once again, showed strong signs that he understood the mutual benefit from sharing.Though he could have chosen the selfish pink cup to get a treat on each of his turns, it appeared that he quickly deduced that choosing the green cup meant he would receive a treat on every turn. The more he shared, the more likely his partner would share also, resulting in more treats for him.

Under these circumstances, sharing does seem to be rooted with selfish motivations, though the same could probably be said for most instances of altruism. The ability to share and share alike conferred an evolutionary advantage, since those willing to work with others and share resources would have been more likely to succeed over time.

This latest research shows that Griffin does have a certain level of comprehension for the benefit of sharing, though his motivations are still unknown.  In reality, the reasons for sharing in birds could be a blend of selfishness, fairness, and out of kindness for the partner.

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