Are Ducks Far Cleverer Than We Thought?

It turns out that ducks might be far more intelligent than they have been given credit for.

The insult “birdbrain” may become redundant thanks to the findings of a new study published in the journal Science this Thursday. Scientists were surprised to find that newborn ducklings were able to understand the idea of same and different, writes Doyle Rice for USA Today.

Are Ducks Far Cleverer Than We Thought?

Ducklings can have abstract thoughts

This ability had previously only been observed in animals like crows, apes and parrots, which are considered to be more intelligent.

“We believe the ducklings are the first species shown to do this right after birth,” said Antone Martinho, a doctoral student at the U.K.’s University of Oxford department of zoology and the study’s lead author. “We now think that many or most bird species that imprint could probably also do it.”

Normal behavior among ducklings is a process called “imprinting,” in which they learn to identify and follow their mother. This can happen as soon as 15 minutes after hatching, and is so powerful that it can lead ducklings to follow any moving object.

Training used to analyze ducklings

Martinho said that the study is the first time that any animal has been able to learn such a concept without reinforcement.

“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,” said Alex Kacelnik, also of the University of Oxford’s department of zoology and a study co-author.

During the experiment the ducklings were put into a training area in which shapes of various colors and sizes were presented to them. Martinho made the ducklings chase two red pyramids in the first round of training, before giving them a choice of two red spheres or a red cone and a red cylinder in round two.

The ducklings chose the two spheres even though they were not the pyramids that they had seen in round one. This is because they are two objects of the same shape.

Ducklings that were trained with a red cube and a red rectangular prism in round one chose the cone and cylinder in round two as they are different shaped objects.

Scientists also conducted a second experiment based on color, where each shape was a sphere.

Humans are not the only animals capable of abstract thinking

“The key point of our experiment was that the pair of shapes the ducks saw and learned in the first round never appeared again,” Martinho said.

The interesting point of the study is that it shows how animals generally perceived as less intelligent are capable of abstract thought, said Ed Wasserman of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Iowa in an article about the study.

The study also reveals how very young animals can demonstrate abstract thinking even without the promise of rewards or punishment, added Wasserman.

“The claim that abstract relational thinking is a unique ability of human beings can no longer be supported,” Wasserman concluded.

Another interesting idea to arise from the study is that it emphasizes that we humans are also animals.

“We often think of things like ability to form abstract thoughts as one of the things that makes humans special,” Martinho says. “That’s not necessarily untrue, but the presence or absence of abstract thought is probably not what makes humans special.”

Instead, he says, “it’s probably a question of degrees,” of how abstract our thoughts are and what we are able to do with them.