Bird Brains

If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a…rocket scientist?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Conceptual thought has led to great achievements. Think Einstein’s theory of relativity or Shakespeare’s plays.

Animals like dogs and monkeys can also think conceptually. But only after being trained. Are any animals able to do this on their own?

Antone Martinho and Alex Kacelnik at the University of Oxford decided to find out.

Their test subject? Baby ducks! When ducklings hatch, they imprint. Meaning they learn to follow the first object they see.

The scientists wondered: does imprinting use conceptual thinking? They exposed newly hatched ducklings to a pair of objects. The objects were either identical OR different in one characteristic, shape or color.

Ducklings exposed to the identical pair preferred to follow other identical objects. Ducks exposed to the different pair, however, tended to follow non-identical objects. This shows ducks don’t imprint onto any ‘ole thing. They use the concept “same or different” to do it.

Abstract thinking? Ha! Easy. Like water off a duck’s back.