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When it Comes to Tool Use, Scientists Say Kids and Apes Have a Similar Skill Set

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The human race likes to see itself as separate from the rest of earth's many species, but as researchers develop more thoughtful experiments, those barriers have a tendency to fall away. Scientists have long believed, for example, that tool use in humans must be learned from others. But according to a new study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society Bhuman toddlers and apes are in fact equally adept at figuring out how to use tools.

Tool use is a big deal in behavioral science because it represents a pretty sophisticated way of thinking. Many previous experiments on animal tool use have used a very people-centric approach, grading other animals on their ability to perform human tasks. These experiments are biased from the start, write the authors of the new study, because when those animals have failed to perform human-oriented skills they would never need in the wild, the researchers have concluded that they’re simply not as smart as we are. 

The new study set out to correct those mistakes. Rather than measuring an ape’s ability to act like a person, they measured human kids’ ability to act like apes—which makes a lot more sense, evolutionarily speaking. The researchers were curious to find out if toddlers were capable of discovering tool use on their own. They also wanted to know if tasks that are harder for apes are harder for people. 

To find out, they created the Great Ape Tool Test Battery (GATTeB), a list of 12 common tool-use behaviors in wild chimpanzees and orangutans. Items included using a twig to dig seeds out of fruit, cracking a nut with a rock, or picking the marrow out of bones with a small stick. 

“We chose great ape tasks for three reasons,” lead author Eva Reindl said in a press statement. “Firstly, they are unfamiliar to children. This ensures that children will have to invent the correct behavior instead of using socially acquired, previous knowledge. Second, they are ecologically relevant, and third, they allow us to make species comparisons with regard to the cognitive abilities involved.” 

Here’s where things get fun: The researchers devised human-kid equivalents of these behaviors, like using a stick to pull pom-poms out of a little box, cracking a plastic nut with a clay hammer to get at the prize inside, or picking a sticker out of a tube with a stick. They made each task into a game, with a sticker as a prize. ("Stickers represent a highly valuable and desirable good for most Western children throughout the preschool age—and are thus motivating for children," the researchers write in the paper.)

They brought in 50 kids 2–3.5 years old and put them to work. Earlier studies have suggested that an adult ape and a 2-year-old child have equivalent intelligence, but because some of the tests were tough, the researchers decided to include slightly older kids. 

Before the tests began, the kids got a warm-up play session where they learned that they were allowed to break, manipulate, and destroy the objects in front of them—a crucial element, since several of the tasks required breaking or poking holes in things. 

Each kid was then given four GATTeB-equivalent tasks to complete. “The idea was to provide children with the raw material necessary to solve the task,” co-author Claudio Tennie said in the press release. “We told children the goal of the task, for example to get the pom-poms out of the box, but we never mentioned using the tool to them. We would then investigate whether children spontaneously came up with the correct tool behavior on their own.”

And they did. Collectively, the kids solved 11 of the 12 tasks. Eighty percent of the time, they picked up the right tools for the job, even when they couldn’t figure out what to do with them. Without hints, lessons, or anyone to imitate, the kids invented tool use all on their own.

“While it is true that more sophisticated forms of human tool use indeed require social learning, we have identified a range of basic tool behaviors which seem not to,” Reindl continued in the press release. “Using great ape tasks, we could show that these roots of human tool culture are shared by great apes, including humans, and potentially also their last common ancestor.” 

This suggests, the authors write, that “humans are neither born with special physical cognition skills, nor that these skills have degraded due to our species’ long reliance of social learning in the tool-use domain."

So parents, give your kids some random objects to interact with and see what they come up with. 

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Animals
Pigeons Are Secretly Brilliant Birds That Understand Space and Time, Study Finds
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Of all the birds in the world, the pigeon draws the most ire. Despite their reputation as brainless “rats with wings,” though, they’re actually pretty brilliant (and beautiful) animals. A new study adds more evidence that the family of birds known as pigeons are some of the smartest birds around, as Quartz alerts us.

In addition to being able to distinguish English vocabulary from nonsense words, spot cancer, and tell a Monet from a Picasso, pigeons can understand abstract concepts like space and time, according to the new study published in Current Biology. Their brains just do it in a slightly different way than humans’ do.

Researchers at the University of Iowa set up an experiment where they showed pigeons a computer screen featuring a static horizontal line. The birds were supposed to evaluate the length of the line (either 6 centimeters or 24 centimeters) or the amount of time they saw it (either 2 or 8 seconds). The birds perceived "the longer lines to have longer duration, and lines longer in duration to also be longer in length," according to a press release. This suggests that the concepts are processed in the same region of the brain—as they are in the brains of humans and other primates.

But that abstract thinking doesn’t occur in the same way in bird brains as it does in ours. In humans, perceiving space and time is linked to a region of the brain called the parietal cortex, which the pigeon brains lack entirely. So their brains have to have some other way of processing the concepts.

The study didn’t determine how, exactly, pigeons achieve this cognitive feat, but it’s clear that some other aspect of the central nervous system must be controlling it. That also opens up the possibility that other non-mammal animals can perceive space and time, too, expanding how we think of other animals’ cognitive capabilities.

[h/t Quartz]

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The Queen's Racing Pigeons Are in Danger, Due to an Increase in Peregrine Falcons
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Queen Elizabeth is famous for her love of corgis and horses, but her pet pigeons don't get as much press. The monarch owns nearly 200 racing pigeons, which she houses in a luxury loft at her country estate, Sandringham House, in Norfolk, England. But thanks to a recent boom in the region’s peregrine falcon population, the Queen’s swift birds may no longer be able to safely soar around the countryside, according to The Telegraph.

Once endangered, recent conservation efforts have boosted the peregrine falcon’s numbers. In certain parts of England, like Norfolk and the city of Salisbury in Wiltshire, the creatures can even find shelter inside boxes installed at local churches and cathedrals, which are designed to protect potential eggs.

There’s just one problem: Peregrine falcons are birds of prey, and local pigeon racers claim these nesting nooks are located along racing routes. Due to this unfortunate coincidence, some pigeons are failing to return to their owners.

Pigeon racing enthusiasts are upset, but Richard Salt of Salisbury Cathedral says it's simply a case of nature taking its course. "It's all just part of the natural process,” Salt told The Telegraph. "The peregrines came here on their own account—we didn't put a sign out saying 'room for peregrines to let.' Obviously we feel quite sorry for the pigeons, but the peregrines would be there anyway."

In the meantime, the Queen might want to keep a close eye on her birds (or hire someone who will), or consider taking advantage of Sandringham House's vast open spaces for a little indoor fly-time.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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