It looks like ducks have the smarts to go head-to-head against seemingly more intelligent animals like parrots and monkeys. A new Oxford study found newborn ducklings were able to ace a test on abstract thought the other species could only get right after being trained. It brings new evidence to the idea that ducks are actually smarter than scientists gave it credit for and changes the way we look at animal intelligence.
The cleverly designed study shows ducklings are born with the ability to distinguish the abstract concepts of sameness and difference.
The experiment began in 2015 when researchers wanted to know more about how imprinting worked. Imprinting is a type of early developmental learning commonly found in birds where newborns will attach themselves to the very first thing they see.
One of the scientists on the study, Antone Martinho, said his team wondered if this imprint relies on a literal image of the mother “burned” into the brain or whether the chick learned subtle, non-physical patterns.
Here’s a basic breakdown of how they conducted the test.
An hour after birth, the team put the duckling in an arena with a single pair of moving objects. For one set of ducklings, the pair of objects would look the identical to each other, such as two red spheres. The baby chick would eventually start following the objects as a result of imprinting.
Then the chicks were placed in a new arena, this time with two new pairs of objects. One pair would be the same as each other, say two green spheres. The other pair would be different from each other, say an orange sphere and a purple one. If the duckling saw objects that looked the same as each other in the first arena, 75% of them would prefer to follow the pair of objects that look the same as each other in the second area.
And if in the first arena, they were shown a pair of different objects, they would prefer the differing pair of objects in the second. The team tested for both color and shape sameness and the ducklings showed they could discern both.
In nature, Martinho theorized the cognitive ability to distinguish sameness from difference could have an evolutionary advantage for ducklings imprinting images of their mother.
“The ability to form an abstract understanding of who she is, rather than just a physical image, will mean that you can find her even if she looks slightly different,” Martinho said. “For instance, if she’s standing partway behind a tree or if she dips into a lake and is half blocked by the surface of a water.”
Just as telling, the study also revealed just how much we still don’t know about the diverse forms of animal intelligence and how we go about measuring it.
“Although animals may not be able to speak, studying their behavior may be a suitable substitute for assaying their thoughts, and this in turn may allow us to jettison the stale canard that thought without language is impossible,” University of Iowa psychologist Edward Wasserman wrote in an accompanying op-ed article.