In mythology from around the world, ravens are seen as clever birds that will easily find you out if you cross them.
Now a new study has revealed that ravens do indeed spy on each other, and know when they are being watched. This Tuesday a group of scientists published their findings in the journal Nature Communications, revealing how impressive ravens’ cognitive abilities are.
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Ravens show basic Theory of Mind, say scientists
One thing that marks humans out from other animals is a set of skills referred to as “Theory of Mind.” It is sometimes defined as our ability to evaluate things through another person’s eyes and consider what they might be thinking.
The study authors believe that ravens have a basic Theory of Mind. Ravens that come across carrion eat as much as they can before hiding excess meat to be eaten later. During feeding time, beta birds often spy on alpha birds to see where they have hidden their meat.
However the scientists found that as well as spying on each other, ravens use tricks to deceive other birds and throw them off track. this behavior suggests that they know they’re being watched, and they know other ravens want to steal their food. But the major question is whether they know what others are thinking, or whether they are reacting to physical stimuli.
Experiment shows birds don’t just react to visual stimuli
Scientists had to prove that behavior remained the same even when a second raven was not visible, and set up an experiment. “Because all available behavior-reading cues have been controlled for in the test condition – there is no actual competitor whose gaze could be read, and the situation is novel from the subject’s perspective – these data provide clear evidence that raven social cognition cannot be reduced to behavior-reading,” the team writes.
As a result of the experiment the researchers concluded that ravens display a Theory of Mind, but nowhere near on a par with humans. We are differentiated by many factors, including “false belief,” a phenomenon which allows us to realize that other people may believe something we know to be false.
Researchers are locked in heated debate as to whether advanced Theory of Mind developed due to speech or vice versa. Some argue Theory of Mind helped speech to develop, while others say language males Theory of Mind possible in the first place.
Research aids understanding of human cognitive development
“We need to keep trying to fill in that story” about human development, says study author Dr Cameron Buckner, a philosopher at the University of Houston. Studying animals and evaluating their Theory of Mind helps us realize how we are different.
Another practical application of the research is the study of cognitive development, especially in disorders such as autism, and can help us work out why we are special. At the same time we have certain things in common with animals such as ravens, including high-maintenance relationships.
Ravens are able to negotiate two distinct phases of life thanks to their complex social cognition. They grow up in a hierarchical group with similarities to human high school, before settling down into long-term breeding pairs.
“Maintaining a stable relationship with another sophisticated agent over time, as humans know, can itself be challenging,” he says. “You might need to really remember things from the more distant past, to know what your partner likes and what they dislike, and what they might be annoyed about, or be able to console them, or make up for slights in the past.”