Science/AAAS

Video: Ducklings capable of abstract thought

Like many animals, ducklings learn to identify their mom soon after hatching through a process called “imprinting.” They then follow their mother everywhere, like railway cars attached to an engine. But ducklings can also imprint on any moving object—cats, people, robots. And they recognize their mom whether she’s walking, flying, or partially submerged. Do they simply take a mental photo of her, or are their brains capable of understanding abstract concepts? Our brains, for instance, recognize that some things have the same shape or color (they share the “same” properties); whereas other things are different. Can ducklings also do this? To find out, scientists presented newly hatched mallard ducks with a pair of objects to imprint on. The objects were either the same or different in shape and color, and they moved in a circular path (as in the video above). The ducklings were then tested to see which pairs of objects they would follow. For instance, if a hatchling had imprinted on a pair of matching ball-shaped objects, then it may have been given a choice between following another pair of matching objects (same) or a pair of mismatched objects (different). If they understood the basic property of the original pair (they are the same), then they should run after the matched pair—whether these were two spheres, two pyramids, or two cubes. Most of the ducklings did exactly this, showing that they could reason logically about things that are the same and things that are different, the researchers report in the current issue of Science. This ability had previously been shown only in apes, crows, and parrots. The study shows that untrained ducklings—and likely other very young animals—are innately capable of dealing with abstract concepts, making them far more intelligent than previously believed.