Ravens Have The Rare Ability To Plan Ahead - Almost Like Humans

Ravens Have The Rare Ability To Plan Ahead - Almost Like Humans

But human civilization was built around our supposedly unique ability to plan-to anticipate future needs and sacrifice now to reap the rewards later.

Recent studies on great apes showed the ability is not uniquely human. However, monkeys have failed similar experiments. About the same time, researchers noticed that birds known as corvids-which include jays, crows, and ravens-also showed signs of planning. Previously, they were shown to think ahead by caching food to eat later. Confirming their forward-planning abilities, the birds performed at least as well as apes and small children in this complex cognitive task.

So, just like in the quiz above, in the first tool use experiment, the ravens were shown a box with a reward, but had no tool they could use to get the reward out. These are similar to studies done on great apes.

Their paper appears in the journal Science.

In one test, ravens were trained to use a tool to open a puzzle box in order to access a reward. The distractors included a wooden wheel, a wooden ball, a T-shaped metal pipe and a plastic toy auto. The birds also learned to trade that tool for a token-a plastic bottle cap-that would get them an even better reward. The second extended that period to 17 hours, and the success rate was even higher, at 88 percent. Then, a different experimenter offered them a tray with the token on it along with other distracter objects. "The human brain stores memories of past events to guide decision-making about current and future events", wrote psychologists Markus Boeckle and Nicola Clayton of the University of Cambridge.

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The researchers found that the ravens would not choose immediate food rewards when there was a promise of larger, more delicious treats later on. Considering that the average lifespan of a raven in the wild is just 10-15 years, their cognitive achievements are all the more remarkable. "We basically found that the further ahead in the future a reward for ravens, the less value it gets", says Kabadayi. Apes knocked us off our special perch almost a decade ago when they showed that they, too, can plan for future events.

To plan, "you need a lot of different skill sets to work together and that's interesting, because how can that be similar between corvids and great apes given they are so different to each other evolutionarily?" says Kabadayi.

If the birds do prove to have these capabilities, then future planning must have evolved at least twice, Osvath says.

Although the evidence is new, the ability of ravens to see ahead has always been suspected: In Greek mythology, they are associated with the god of prophecy; an old term for a group of them is "conspiracy".

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