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Smart as a Duck

July 24, 2016


Is a duckling capable of abstract thought?
Somehow this story of true intelligence got buried beneath the convention news.

According to authors in the journal Science, experiments demonstrate the ability of newly hatched duckling to distinguish the concepts “same” and “different.”

Previously, the authors note, “pigeons and bees can be trained to discriminate whether novel images contain humans or not, or whether novel paintings are by Monet or Picasso.” Such discrimination requires extensive training between specific patterns–the pattern of a “human” shape, versus other; or the patterns of Monet versus Picasso. The discrimination of paintings does not imply artistic talent; in fact, the animals might be observing something trivial, such as the color scheme or size of objects depicted. These previous findings all required concrete objects to discriminate.

But can we demonstrate learning of an abstract concept?

Authors Antone Martinho III and Alex Kacelnik, of the Oxford Zoology department, claim to have done just that. They made ingenious use of a powerful memory tool: the imprinting of birds on their parent. Imprinting has long been demonstrated as an introductory lab in biology. The student waits for a duck egg to hatch; then the first thing the hatchling sees or hears is the student. Forever after, the hatchling follows the student as if they were its mother.

If ducklings can imprint upon a human student, what about inanimate objects? Or even an abstract concept?

In the experiment, newly hatched ducklings were exposed to pairs of objects.

In some cases, the hatchlings were exposed to pairs of objects that were identical. Other hatchlings were presented with pairs of objects that differed in shape or color.

After exposure, the hatchlings were then presented with a pair of objects of a different kind (balls versus cones). But two kinds of presentation were done: of two different objects, or two identical objects. For example, a duck was imprinted on “two spheres”, then tested on “two cones” (identical) or on “cube plus tower” (different). The duck’s preference was then measured by the number of times it stepped toward the object pair. Even though the new objects were of a different kind, the ducks still preferred (stepped toward) an identical pair, if it had imprinted on an identical pair; or a dissimilar pair, if it had imprinted on a dissimilar pair. The experiment worked either for shape or color.

When picked up by the canonical alien abductors, I wonder how many of us humans could pass this test.


One Comment
  1. July 25, 2016 1:28 pm

    Well, if I walk like a duck and quack like a duck…

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