Newborn Ducklings May Understand Abstract Relational Concepts

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Everyone knows ducklings are adorable, but it turns out they’re also surprisingly smart. While many animals, including humans, are pretty helpless when they’re first born, ducklings spring into action quickly, learning to recognize and follow their mother (or a maternal substitute) in the first moments of their lives. In a recent study published in the journal Science, researchers discovered that newborn ducklings may also be capable of learning abstract relational concepts—specifically, the concepts of “sameness” and “difference.”

The Guardian reports that researchers at the University of Oxford wanted to determine whether ducklings were capable of abstract thought, so they presented groups of newborn hatchlings with objects that were either the same shape (for instance, two pyramids) or different (for instance, a pyramid and a sphere). The ducklings imprinted on the shapes and began to follow them around their pen, as researchers pulled the shapes on a string.

Later, the ducklings were presented with different sets of shape pairs: One featured the same shapes (say, two cubes), and the other different shapes (a cube and a cylinder). Researchers found that the majority of ducklings followed shapes that matched their original pairing concept (either sameness or difference). For instance, if the ducklings initially imprinted on two shapes that were the same, they were more likely to follow new shapes that were identical to each other.

In a second test, researchers exposed ducklings to shapes that were either the same or different colors. Later, they presented the ducklings with new color sets. Once again, they observed that ducklings were more likely to follow color sets that matched their original color relationships. For instance, if a duckling was exposed to red and blue shapes shortly after birth, it was more likely to follow two other differently colored shapes than two shapes of the same color.

Researchers believe their experiment shows that ducklings may be capable of certain forms of abstract thought. They also believe that the ducklings’ ability to distinguish between the concepts of “sameness” and “difference” may help them better follow their mother after birth. “They need a table of rules or concepts that lets them identify something that doesn’t look exactly like it did last time they saw it—as with mother duck walking halfway behind a tree,” researcher Antone Martinho III told The Guardian. “She doesn’t physically look the same way that she did last time [the duckling] saw her, but because [the duckling] has an abstract understanding of what defines [its] mother duck, it is able to say, ‘That’s her.’” 

The study seems to provide more evidence that being bird brained isn't a bad thing. As the researchers write: "Thus, even in a seemingly rigid and very rapid form of learning such as filial imprinting, the brain operates with abstract conceptual reasoning, a faculty often assumed to be reserved to highly intelligent organisms."

[h/t The Guardian]