From understanding death to crafting tools, ravens are the cognitive geniuses of the birding world. But these brain boxes have now added another string to their bow, as researchers have found that they can plan for the future to a similar extent as great apes.
It was recently uncovered that corvids – the vastly intelligent group of birds that contains not only ravens, but also crows, jays, and nutcrackers – can recognize when they have been cheated, and subsequently remember which person short-changed them for at least a month after the event. Now, a new study suggests they can plan for the future too, something that has long been thought of as a behavior exclusive to primates.
The taxing neurological task of planning ahead has almost always been found in humans and our hairier ape cousins. There have been previous studies that have hinted at ravens being able to plan for the future, but these have been limited to occasions in which they are catching food.
In a new set of experiments published in Science, however, researchers have found that the raven’s ability to plan ahead goes much further than simply catching food.
The first experiment trained the birds to use a tool to open a box and retrieve a food reward. They were then shown just the puzzle for around one hour, before it was removed from their enclosure. They were next presented with a range of tools, including the correct tool for the previous puzzle, and made to wait 15 minutes before the puzzle was given back. The birds were successful at identifying the correct tool, in anticipation of the puzzle being returned, 86 percent of the time.
They were then given a task that involved bartering. Since this behavior does not occur in the wild, it cannot be explained by hardwired disposition. In a similar way to the previous experiment, the ravens were tasked with finding and exchanging tokens for food at a later date. In this experiment, the birds were actually found to plan for the bartering more accurately than apes in similar tests.
Finally, the birds were given the option to choose a tool to open the puzzle (which contained a high value reward), a tool that did not work, and a low value but immediate food reward, and were allowed to only take one. The ravens chose the tool for the puzzle, even if it meant delaying their reward, again putting them on par with apes in terms of planning for future events.
“The broadest significance of this study is about independent evolution of complex cognition,” explained co-author Can Kabadayi to IFLScience in an email. “Since corvids and great apes are vastly separated phylogenetically, they must have [evolved] their flexible planning skills independently.”
“Put simply, it is mind baffling that a similar set of complex skills can evolve in vastly distant lineages,” Kabadayi continued.
The similarities in the cognitive abilities of both apes and corvids opens up a whole new set of questions as to how and why such complex cognition evolved in two completely different groups of animals, and what it is that has driven it in both sets. It also raises the question of whether or not there is a similar underlying mechanism in the brains of apes and corvids, which is particularly interesting due to the superficial differences in their organs.