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Crows Exhibit Social Learning

Aug 26, 2015 06:10 PM EDT
New Caledonian crow
The New Caledonian crow exhibits social learning, where the birds learn how to handle tools. While the may be emulating each other, the researchers found that the birds aren't necessarily copying the actual actions of their fellow friends.
(Photo : Jolyon Troscianko)

As humans we have evolved with our changing culture, and more specifically our ability to use tools, also called our technological culture--but can animals evolve in a similar way? According to a recent study, the New Caledonian crow is an extremely smart corvid capable of possessing its own technological culture. Corina Logan, a junior research fellow at UC-Santa Barbara's Sage Center for the Study of the Mind, examined just how these birds transmit knowledge to each other.

"We don't know whether the crows have cumulative technological culture, and one of the reasons is that we don't know how they learn," Logan said in a statement. "There's a hypothesis that says in order for cumulative technological culture to occur you need to copy the actions of another individual. And we don't know whether the crows are paying attention to the actions of others when they learn from someone else."

According to the release, the crows have been seen using tools they've made out of long, narrow, palm-like Pandanus leaves.

"It has a serrated edge, and they cut into one side of the leaf, then make another cut farther down and then rip off the part in between," Logan explained in the release. "It makes a tool they can use to dig grubs out of logs."

Logan also noted in the release that the crows have been observed using tools made of the same material, but in different shapes. The shapes include wide, narrow and stepped. While they might do this to make tools more structurally sound, no one has been able to explain the geographic variation in tool shapes.

"It's thought that in order for tool shapes to be transmitted, one bird would have to watch another cutting the leaf and then mimic that bird's actions," Logan said in the release. "That would require imitation or emulation."

So, that's where Logan comes in. She devised a study to look at all the social and asocial learning mechanisms that the crows use when solving a problem. In order to create an objective study, Logan gave the birds a novel non-tool task, so that those birds with more experience with one particular tool didn't have an advantage.

"I used two apparatuses with multiple access points on each," she said, "so we could look at whether the crows were imitating or emulating, whether they were just paying attention to another crow's general location or whether they were paying attention to a specific area on an apparatus that another crow was interacting with."

However, her study revealed that the birds don't imitate each other, nor copy each other. She and her team did find strong evidence of social learning, though.

"It's called stimulus enhancement," Logan explained in the release. "That's the social learning mechanism they're using. But there's another interesting aspect: Once they see another bird interact with the door, they go to that door and then begin to solve the problem on their own. And now they completely ignore social information and they just use trial and error learning to open the door and extract the food."

Since juveniles live with or near their parents for the first year or two, they see their parents use a specific tool and will interact with it, and learn through trial and error.

To better explain how these actions are different than copying, Logan further explained that, "We're suggesting it could be that they're copying the end result of another crow's action, but they're not copying the actual actions of the other crows," Logan continued in the release. "It's actually a form of emulation but it doesn't involve the copying actions that were hypothesized previously."

In the end, everyone learned from everyone: similar to how humans interact.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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