Cute little ducklings are hardly known for their intelligence. But a new study has shown that far from being bird-brained, ducklings may be capable of abstract concepts previously thought only be possible in primates, corvids, and parrots.
The experiment that the researchers conducted on the adorable little balls of fluff were slightly confusing, so bear with us here. To begin with, as ducklings imprint on the first thing they see that moves after hatching, the team exposed the newly hatched ducklings to a pair of objects dangling from the ceiling and moving in a circular motion around the chicks, meaning the ducklings imprinted on them and now thought the objects were their mother. The objects were either the same shape as each other, such as two spheres, or different shapes to each other, like a pyramid and a cuboid.
The babies were then removed from the experimentation arena and placed in a dark box for half an hour. They were then placed back into the experiment and shown two new pairs of objects. These new objects either exhibited the same relationship to each other as their “mother” objects did, or a different relationship.
The researchers then recorded which pair the ducklings followed. So for example, if the ducklings initially imprinted on two spheres, which are the same shape, when later exposed to either a pair consisting of two pyramids (“same”), or a pair consisting of a cube and a cuboid (“different”), the ducklings went for the pyramids as they shared the same relationship to each other as their mother objects did.
The researchers then repeated this experiment but instead of having either the same or different shapes, they did it with colors. They found that about 75 percent of the ducklings that followed the shapes preferred those that showed the same relationship that they had learned during imprinting. This, claims the researchers, shows that the ducklings can acquire the notions of “same” or “different” just hours after hatching, and they think that it probably aids in the little chicklets keeping up with their mothers in the wild.
“Ducks walk, swim and fly, and are constantly changing their exact shape and appearance as they extend their wings or become partially submerged, or even change angle with respect to the viewer,” explains Antone Martinho, first author of the study published in Science. If the ducklings only remember what their mother looked like from one angle, then they would quite easily lose her. Therefore, it seems that by remembering a library of concepts and characteristics is a far more efficient way of keeping up.