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Ravens Cooperate With Surprising Intelligence, But Only With Friends

Oct 11, 2015 12:21 PM EDT

It's no secret that ravens are exceptionally intelligent birds.  Featured in myth and legend as doom-sayers, tricksters, and magical familiars, the wit of the raven is well known. Now new research has found that ravens are even capable of solving tasks that require coordinated cooperation -- an ability only a handful of hyper-intelligent species are capable of.

That's at least according to a study recently published in the journal Scientific Reports, which details how ravens can tackle the same impressive cooperative tasks that only chimpanzees, elephants, and dolphins can complete -- but with a catch.

"From the wild, it was already known that ravens are able to cooperate when, for example, mobbing predators. But using an experimental set-up working with captive ravens now allowed us to investigate, how exactly they do so," lead-author Jorg Massen, from the University of Vienna, Austria, explained in  a statement.

The experimental task was simple enough. A platform was hung from the ravens' enclosure with two pieces of cheese on it. One rope was fed through two loops on the platform in such a way that it would take two ravens (one bird at each rope end) pulling in tandem to bring the cheese into reach. If one raven attempted to pull the rope alone, the platform would fall away -- a shameful waste of cheese. (Scroll to read on...)

Without any training, raven pairs again and again learned how to solve, and then cooperated to complete, the task. However, much like people, the birds tacked the task far more efficiently when paired with a friend.

Most interestingly, it appears even ravens hold grudges. In some instances, a raven in a successful pair would cheat his ally, snapping up both pieces of cheese. The researcher noticed that in future trials, the victims of events remembered their foe, sabotaging future cooperative tasks if paired with the cheater.

"Such a sophisticated way of keeping your partner in check has previously only been shown in humans and chimpanzees," Massen added. "[It's] a complete novelty among birds."

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