Daily Bulletin

The Conversation

  • Written by Alex Taylor, Senior Lecturer, University of Auckland

My ideas about animal behaviour were turned upside down in 2002 when I watched Betty, a New Caledonian crow, fashion a hook from a piece of wire and use it to pull a small container with meat from a tube.

Betty’s behaviour captivated scientists because it seemed so creative: there was no obvious solution to the problem yet Betty had found a way. How could this crow be thinking, given it was separated from humans by 620 million years of independent evolution?

Our latest research, published today, helps us answer this question. It provides conclusive evidence that, like a chess player thinking several moves ahead, New Caledonia crows can plan out a sequence of three behaviours while using tools in order to solve a problem.

New Caledonian crows demonstrate that they can remember the location of out-of-sight tools while planning a three-stage sequence of behaviour.

Clever birds

Over the past 20 years, New Caledonian crows have produced a variety of behaviours that have suggested they might be highly intelligent. But creating conclusive evidence for what is actually going through the mind of an animal is tricky.

Read more: Bird-brained and brilliant: Australia's avians are smarter than you think

In past work, we have given crows problems that require longer and longer sequences of behaviour. But to really understand if New Caledonian crows can plan, we needed to distinguish between online planning and preplanning.

Online planning involves making a plan on a moment-to-moment basis. It can be thought of as essentially planning on the fly; you make one move, assess the effects, and then plan the next. Preplanning is true planning. You plan a sequence of steps ahead, such as when thinking two or three moves ahead in chess, and then carry out those steps.

Seventeen years on from Betty’s hook bending, thanks to a training breakthrough by three of our team (Romana Gruber, Martina Schiestl and Markus Boeckle), we were finally able to design an experiment to test the birds’ planning skills.

Solving complex problems

We presented the crows with a difficult problem. Crows had to use a short stick to pull a stone from a tube, and then use this stone to release a platform to get meat, while ignoring another tube that contained a long stick. The catch was that each stage of the problem was out-of-sight of the others, hidden by a wooden shield that prevented the crows from seeing more than one part of the problem at a time. To make things harder, we swapped the position of the two tubes randomly between trials, so crows had to remember where they had last seen the correct tool.

New Caledonian crows smart enough to plan three steps ahead to solve tricky problem This diagram shows the setup the crows had to navigate to get their reward. Alex Taylor, CC BY-ND

This meant that as the crows approached the problem, they had to mentally represent where the long stick, stone and meat were, and then use these representations to form a plan of what to do once they had picked up the short stick. Solving the problem on a moment-to-moment basis (i.e. by online planning) would lead them to make mistakes.

Highly surprisingly, some of the crows we presented with this problem did exceptionally well. One individual, Saturn, actually never made a mistake on this task.

Evolution of planning

These results show New Caledonian crows can pre-plan three behaviours into the future. While they suggest that Betty planned out her wire bending behaviours, the implications of these results go far beyond explaining her behaviour.

New Caledonian crows have so far sparked such interest because they are a highly useful model species to understand the evolution of tool use. Our results mean we can now use these birds to understand something even more fundamental: the evolution of planning itself.

Planning is one of the most powerful cognitive abilities humans have. When combined with our tool use it has allowed us to reach the heights of civilisation we currently enjoy. This combination is therefore at the heart of what is means to be human.

Now we know another species, a tool-using crow, living on an island in the Pacific, can also combine these abilities. Understanding their story, of how they came to be able to possess these skills, will teach us much about our own story, about why we evolved to think the way we do today.

Authors: Alex Taylor, Senior Lecturer, University of Auckland

Read more http://theconversation.com/new-caledonian-crows-smart-enough-to-plan-three-steps-ahead-to-solve-tricky-problem-110431

The Conversation


Prime Minister on the Alan Jones Show

ALAN JONES: Prime Minister, good morning.    PRIME MINISTER: Good morning Alan, how are you? Good to hear you back on the air.   JONES: Thank you. Thank you very much. Can I just - there's a lot...

Alan Jones - avatar Alan Jones

The Greens side with activists, not farmers

The Greens’ Agriculture Spokesperson, Senator Janet Rice, today made some disgraceful comments in relation to the Government’s tough new penalties for keyboard warriors who incite activists to inv...

Senator Bridget McKenzie - avatar Senator Bridget McKenzie

Scott Morrison interview with Alan Jones - 2GB

ALAN JONES: The Prime Minister's on the line from Melbourne, Prime Minister good morning. PRIME MINISTER: Good morning Alan ALAN JONES:  thank you for your time. I wish we had three hours but look...

Alan Jones - avatar Alan Jones

Business News

Deliveroo appoints Laura Huddle as Head of Commercial in Australia

Leading online food platform Deliveroo has appointed Laura Huddle as Head of Commercial in Australia, as the platform continues to invest in building a strong and experienced local leadership team...

Sinead Harding - avatar Sinead Harding

The Most Successful Start-Ups in Australia

The future looks bright for Australia’s start-up sector. Cities like Sydney, Melbourne and Perth are beginning to be recognized as most popular Australian start-up hubs. More and more companies are ...

News Company - avatar News Company

Three important challenges small businesses face and how to fix them

Running a business can be hard, and sometimes, it can be harder than you think when first entering into this otherwise unknown world. Because of this, many small businesses in Australia are afrai...

News Company - avatar News Company


DEAL: Kids stay and eat for FREE these school holidays!

Take these school holidays to the next level with the ultimate family escape at PARKROYAL Darling Harbour. What’s more, kids under 12 years of age, can stay and eat for FREE! ...

Liana Gardy - avatar Liana Gardy

How to Book a Hotel for Your Vietnam Trip

Finding a travel destination may turn out to be challenging at times. You may have a long bucket list, which leaves you spoilt for choice on where to visit first. Going through travel blogs and site...

News Company - avatar News Company

New Allianz data reveals the ‘forgotten’ European countries attracting Australian travellers this winter

FROM SPAIN TO THE UKRAINE - THE SURPRISE EUROPEAN DESTINATIONS BOOMING WITH AUSSIE TOURISTS Australian travellers are seeking new destinations beyond the Mediterranean when it comes to European...

Media Release - avatar Media Release