Can Ducks Have Abstract Thoughts?On December 5, 2021 by Jill T Frey
Baby Ducks Can Have Abstract Thoughts
Are baby ducks the next generation of avian Picassos? According to recent studies, baby ducks may have an abstract viewpoint on shape and color.
One of the first things a baby duck does after hatching is recognize its mother—or what it believes to be its mother. Baby ducks create attachments to everything they perceive in front of them, whether it’s another animal, an object, or a human. Such muddles might point to a flaw in the evolutionary benefit of “imprinting.” However, according to a new research published this week in Science, the process is far more complicated than scientists previously imagined. Recent investigations at the University of Oxford reveal that during imprinting, Mallard baby ducks record not just sensory information, such as color, sound, or smell, but also abstract information, such as whether two items are the same or different.
In an accompanying editorial, University of Iowa psychologist Edward Wasserman said, “Even very young animals may be able to demonstrate behavioral indicators of abstract thinking.” This degree of consciousness likely reinforces the imprint in the wild, allowing young birds to better adhere to their parents.
Imprinting is a critical developmental stage in many newborn mammals and birds. According to Sunny Bettley, animal rehabilitation and outreach expert at Sharon Audubon, the method is especially critical for species that are precocial, or mobile and self-feeding soon after hatching. Baby ducks must learn to forage and swim via observation in order to live, according to Bettley. They must know who to follow, both in terms of emulating behavior and, more practically, in order to prevent becoming lost. As a result, she advises animal rescuers to be cautious while approaching baby ducks. “Imprinted wildlife cannot be released into the wild since they will not be able to obtain food adequately or successfully, be aware of natural predators, or interact with other members of their species.” They will be unable to reproduce.”
Oxford behavioral ecologist Alex Kacelnik and PhD student Antone Martinho III conducted the study to see if baby ducks could identify if things were the same or different, and eventually whether they could absorb abstract knowledge. In other words, could they make comparisons beyond the particular identification of the objects? In their initial experiment, domestic Mallards were either exposed to things of the same form (for example, two spheres) or to objects of various shapes (like a cone and a rod). The baby ducks were then placed in another chamber containing two pairs of previously unknown objects—one pair of the same form and one pair of different shapes. They next observed the birds for 10 minutes to discover whether things were approached, followed, or avoided. The baby ducks tended to favor couples that were identical to the first set they imprinted on, as predicted. Baby Ducks who imprinted on identical-shaped objects tended to stay to that pattern, but those that imprinted on mismatched objects tended to tilt toward those sets throughout the test. A second experiment with the same or other colored spheres produced comparable findings.
“The key of the study is that the animals couldn’t [select] by resemblance to what they’d seen before,” Kacelnik explains. Instead, it appeared that the birds made their selections based on the abstract connection (defined here as same or different) between the items they imprinted on.
Several animals, including pigeons, parrots, monkeys, and, of course humans, have been seen to discern between the same and the different. Alex, an African Gray Parrot educated by researcher Irene Pepperberg, could, for example, cry out the one shared quality among several things. However, in many of these situations, individuals were trained using a reward-based method. The baby ducks, on the other hand, made these distinctions without expecting to be rewarded.
The study, according to Pepperberg, demonstrated “identification versus non-identity and the potential for processing that level of abstraction” in newborn ducks. However, she feels that the researchers have yet to demonstrate a true comprehension of the species’ same-differentiation. If a baby duck truly understands this notion, she believes it should be able to transmit that understanding across two modalities, such as form and color.
Kacelnik would want to conduct studies with many stimuli, although he admits that these are difficult to construct. Regardless, he believes that these links may reveal how a baby duck analyzes its parents, maybe by utilizing a library of qualities that it associates with an individual. “The mother is defined by a certain value in all of these distinct features,” he explains. Wouldn’t that make an excellent Hallmark card?