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Oxford study finds that ducklings are not ‘bird-brained’ and can learn abstract concepts

Ducklings have the ability to quickly learn the relational concepts of “same” and “different” without being trained, discovered scientists from the University of Oxford.

Such a capability was thought to only be possible among animals with “high IQs”, such as apes and crows.

Thanks to an instinctive form of learning common among young animals, called “imprinting”, ducklings are able to identify and follow their mother within minutes after being hatched.

The video below shows footage recorded during the study:

In the recent study, which was published in the academic journal Science, researchers presented the test subjects with a pair of objects which were either the same or different in shape or color, suspending them on a string that moved in a circular path.

The ducklings then ‘imprinted’ on the first pair of objects and were tested for their ability to recognize the relationship between the two objects in a series of choice tests.

In the tests, each duckling was shown two pairs of objects made of shapes or colors that the duckling had not seen before.

If they had indeed learned the relationship between the first pair of objects – be it same in color or shape, or different in color or shape – then they would follow the pair that had the same relationship, even if they had never seen the test objects before.

Researchers observed that about three-quarters of the ducklings tested chose to follow the pairs that exhibited the same relationship they had picked up during imprinting, and that the ducklings’ accuracy was as good as other species that tend to be regarded as highly intelligent, such as parrots.

According to Professor Alex Kacelnik of the university’s Department of Zoology: “To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration of a non-human organism learning to discriminate between abstract relational concepts without any reinforcement training. The other animals that have demonstrated this ability have all done so by being repeatedly rewarded for correct performance, while our ducklings did it spontaneously, thanks to their predisposition to imprint when very young.”

He added that as imprinting takes place so quickly, “the ducklings learned to discriminate relational concepts much faster than other species, and with a similar level of precision.”

Antone Martinho, a doctoral student under the same department, as well as the study’s first author, said: “While it seems surprising at first that these one-day-old ducklings can learn something that normally only very intelligent species can do, it also makes biological sense. When a duckling is young, it needs to be able to stay near its mother for protection, and an error in identifying her could be fatal.”

Martinho commented that their findings served as a reminder that “bird-brain” is quite an unfair slur.

Relational concept learning among animals is thought to be rare or difficult to learn, but the results of this study suggests that perhaps this is not so.

Professor Kacelnik said the next step would be to figure out the processes used by animals’ brains to learn abstract concepts.

Image via Flickr.

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