Summary: A new study reveals birds can learn how to use objects to solve tasks by first playing with them.
Source: University of York.
Researchers have discovered that New Caledonian crows and kea parrots can learn about the usefulness of objects by playing with them – similar to human baby behaviour.
The study, led by researchers at the Universities of York and St Andrews, demonstrated that two types of bird were able to solve tasks more successfully if they had explored the object involved in the task beforehand.
It has long been thought that playful exploration allows animals to gather information about their physical world, in much the same way that human infants learn about their world through play.
In one of the first direct tests of this hypothesis, scientists studied two bird species, the New Caledonian crow and the kea parrot, to understand how they interact with objects before, during and after a task involving that object.
Dr Katie Slocombe, from the University of York’s Department of Psychology, said: “Both species of bird are known for exploring objects in different ways. The New Caledonian crow use objects in the wild and the kea parrot is known for often being destructive in its play back in its native New Zealand.
“We found that both species were better at selecting the correct tools to solve a task if they had the opportunity to explore them beforehand, suggesting that they were learning something about the properties of them as they interacted with them.”
The team presented the birds with blocks and ropes of different colours, weights and patterns to explore and play with, before presenting a task where they had to collapse a platform with a ball and retrieve a reward from a pipe with a stick. The ball and stick where later replaced with the blocks and ropes to see whether they could choose the right tool from their earlier play session to complete the task.
The team suggests that applying this simple test to other species may shed more light on the different functions of play and exploration and its relation to tool use and physical problem solving.
Megan Lambert, PhD student at the University of York, said: “This type of ‘latent learning’, which occurs without any reinforcement, is thought to be particularly important for animals to be able to use objects as tools in a variety of contexts for creative problem-solving.
“Although the birds appeared to learn from their exploration, we found no evidence that the birds changed the way they interacted with the objects after learning they could be used as tools.
“This means that the birds did not appear to explicitly seek information about the objects, but rather learned about their properties incidentally through exploring them.”
Source: Samantha Martin – University of York
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to University of York.
Video Source: Videos are credited to University of York.
Original Research: Full open access research for “Function and flexibility of object exploration in kea and New Caledonian crows” by Megan L. Lambert, Martina Schiestl, Raoul Schwing, Alex H. Taylor, Gyula K. Gajdon, Katie E. Slocombe, and Amanda M. Seed in Royal Society Open Science. Published online OSeptember 27 2017 doi:10.1098/rsos.170652
Function and flexibility of object exploration in kea and New Caledonian crows
A range of non-human animals frequently manipulate and explore objects in their environment, which may enable them to learn about physical properties and potentially form more abstract concepts of properties such as weight and rigidity. Whether animals can apply the information learned during their exploration to solve novel problems, however, and whether they actually change their exploratory behaviour to seek functional information about objects have not been fully explored. We allowed kea (Nestor notabilis) and New Caledonian crows (Corvus moneduloides) to explore sets of novel objects both before and after encountering a task in which some of the objects could function as tools. Following this, subjects were given test trials in which they could choose among the objects they had explored to solve a tool-use task. Several individuals from both species performed above chance on these test trials, and only did so after exploring the objects, compared with a control experiment with no prior exploration phase. These results suggest that selection of functional tools may be guided by information acquired during exploration. Neither kea nor crows changed the duration or quality of their exploration after learning that the objects had a functional relevance, suggesting that birds do not adjust their behaviour to explicitly seek this information.
“Function and flexibility of object exploration in kea and New Caledonian crows” by Megan L. Lambert, Martina Schiestl, Raoul Schwing, Alex H. Taylor, Gyula K. Gajdon, Katie E. Slocombe, and Amanda M. Seed in Royal Society Open Science. Published online OSeptember 27 2017 doi:10.1098/rsos.170652