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Pigeons Can Distinguish Written Words From Nonsense

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They may not look it, but pigeons are surprisingly smart birds. With a little help from humans, they can learn to deliver messages, spot cancer cells on a mammogram, and even distinguish between the paintings of Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet. Now, the latest study on pigeon intellect, published in the journal PNAS, finds that the remarkably bright birds can even distinguish between written words and nonsensical strings of letters.

Researchers from the University of Otago in New Zealand and Ruhr University in Germany trained pigeons to peck four-letter English words as they appeared on a screen, or peck a separate symbol when a four-letter nonsense term appeared. Over time, they trained four pigeons to build “vocabularies” of between 26 and 58 written words. They found that not only could the pigeons successfully identify the words they’d learned, they could often identify new words they’d never seen.

Though they lacked decoding skills, the study concluded that the birds were capable of processing orthographic information. That is, though the birds were unable to read and understand the words they saw, they were still able to successfully identify visual patterns (or “orthographic properties”) that defined words. For instance, researchers observed that the pigeons could recognize “bigrams” (letter pairs) that were associated with words. They learned to distinguish bigrams commonly used in words (for instance, “AL” and “EL”) in order to distinguish words from nonsense.

The findings are significant, not only because they show pigeons shouldn’t be dismissed as “bird-brained,” but because they reveal that orthographic learning isn’t unique to humans and other primates. In a statement, researcher Onur Güntürkün said, “That pigeons—separated by 300 million years of evolution from humans and having vastly different brain architectures—show such a skill as orthographic processing is astonishing.”

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Animals
Goldfish Can Get Depressed, Too
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Don’t believe what Pixar is trying to sell you: Fish are not exactly brimming with personality. In aquariums, they tend to swim in circles, sucking up fragments of food and ducking around miniature treasure chests. To a layperson, fish don’t appear to possess concepts of happy, or sad, or anything in between—they just seem to exist.

This, researchers say, is not quite accurate. Speaking with The New York Times, Julian Pittman, a professor at the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences at Troy University, says that fish not only suffer from depression, they can be easily diagnosed. Zebrafish dropped into a new tank who linger at the bottom are probably sad; those who enthusiastically explore the upper half are not.

In Pittman’s studies, fish depression can be induced by getting them “drunk” on ethanol, then cutting off the supply, resulting in withdrawal. These fish mope around the tank floor until they’re given antidepressants, at which point they begin happily swimming near the surface again.

It’s impossible to correlate fish depression with that of a human, but Pittman believes the symptoms in fish—losing interest in exploring and eating—makes them viable candidates for exploring neuroscience and perhaps drawing conclusions that will be beneficial in the land-dwelling population.

In the meantime, you can help ward off fish blues by keeping them busy—having obstacles to swim through and intriguing areas of a tank to explore. Just like humans, staying active and engaged can boost their mental health.

[h/t The New York Times]

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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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