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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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10 Amazing Facts About Our Bond With Dogs
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They’ve been our companions for tens of thousands of years. They share our beds, follow us into the bathroom, and star in our holiday cards. The beautiful friendship between Homo sapiens and Canis lupus familiaris has had some surprising effects on both species—read on to learn more about the ways we’ve helped each other along the way.

1. IMPROVED IMMUNITY

Living with furry friends, especially dogs, has been shown to decrease babies’ and kids’ risk for asthma, allergies, and other immune conditions. Some studies have found that the benefits can begin as early as the womb. Scientists aren’t completely sure why this happens; it may be that bacteria on the dogs’ bodies can help give our immune systems a boost during a crucial moment in our development.

2. INCREASED FOCUS

Keeping your phone loaded with pictures of your pet may pay off in the long run. In one 2012 experiment, people who looked at pictures of puppies scored higher on tasks that required their close attention. Photos of older dogs were less effective; the researchers say it might be that baby animals inspire a specific type of positive emotion and mental activation.

3. A THIRST FOR PRAISE

Dogs are social animals; that’s part of the reason we were able to tame them in the first place. And once we take them in, they really start to care what we think. Experiments with dogs and their owners have shown that when given the choice between snacks and praise, most prefer being told what good dogs they are.

4. MORE CHILL

Sharing your life with a drooling, adoring furry friend is good for your attitude and your stress levels. Spending time with dogs can ease tension and stress. Studies have found that this is especially true in high-stress situations like crises, natural disasters, and the office.

5. HEALTHIER HEARTS

Reduced stress is its own reward, but it can also have long-term health benefits, including lower blood pressure, lowered heart rate, and a decreased risk of heart disease. This works even in little doses: just petting a dog for a few minutes sends feel-good chemicals to the brain and can soothe a frazzled nervous system.

6. INTERSPECIES EMPATHY

All those millennia together have made a real impression on dogs’ brains. One 2016 study found that dogs could read and respond to the emotions on human faces, even in photographs. This is especially cool when you consider the major differences in body language between our two species. Dogs don’t smile, but they still know what our grin means when they see it.

7. MORE EXERCISE

There’s nothing like an “I’ve-got-to-pee-RIGHT-NOW” bark to get you up and out the door. For obvious reasons, dog owners get more casual exercise than other people. This, in turn, can also lower stress levels and improve heart health.

8. LANGUAGE LEARNING

Spoken language, like body language, differs drastically between our two species, but that hasn’t stopped dogs from trying to figure ours out. A series of Hungarian experiments using MRI scanners found that dogs’ brains responded to human voices speaking both positive words and with positive tone. This was true even when the positive words were spoken in a neutral tone (“good boy”) and the positive tone was applied to a neutral phrase (“however!!!”). They get us.

9. A SOFT, COMFY LIFE

The good news for dogs is that domestication has given them a steady source of food, shelter, and companionship. The bad news is that all this cushy living has dulled their edges somewhat. Compared to the wolves from which they descended, pet dogs have weaker senses of hearing and smell, and they’re worse at problem-solving tasks. But this isn’t a problem, per se; they’ve simply evolved and been bred to prioritize one set of survival skills (coexisting with people) over another (sharp senses and keen minds).

10. GENETIC CONNECTION

The bond between us and our dogs is real, and may trace all the way down into dogs’ DNA. Experiments have found that the most sociable pet dogs have genetic mutations that appear to make them more interested in people. Without these abnormalities, experts say, we might never have been able to domesticate dogs in the first place.

Dogs make our lives a whole lot happier and healthier. (You can’t argue with science!) Looking to return the favor? Consider a monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other goodies. Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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Buttelmann et al (2017)
Great Apes Understand When Humans Are Wrong
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Buttelmann et al (2017)

Humans aren’t the only ones who can spot when their friends are about to make a mistake. A new study of chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans has found that our great ape cousins can recognize and attempt to correct false beliefs in others—an ability once thought to belong to humans alone. The findings were published in the journal PLOS One.

It’s called Theory of Mind (ToM): the idea that an individual is aware that others have thoughts and feelings different from their own. Because it requires such complex cognitive processing, scientists have long presumed that we’re the only animals that can do it. However, a series of recent studies has called that presumption into question. In 2015, Japanese primatologists created custom horror movies for apes, then observed the apes watching them to see if they could follow the plot. Then in 2016, they made new movies, specially designed to test the apes’ response to watching other apes (actually people in ape costumes) make mistakes.

The movies showed the fake apes being tricked, then having to make a decision based on faulty information. And sure enough, the audience apes’ eyes lingered on the wrong option onscreen, even though they knew where the right option was. They could predict that the actors were about to get it wrong.

The latest experiment takes these discoveries one step farther, by giving apes a chance to help the hapless actor make the right decision. Researchers taught 34 apes to make a simple, rational decision by placing a noisemaker inside one of two locked boxes while the apes were watching. The ape participants were then asked to select the box with the object inside. Next, they set up a little drama. One experimenter would place the object in the box and lock it, then briefly leave the room. While they were gone, another person would come in, remove the object from the first box, place it inside the second box, then exit before the first person returned.

At this point, the ape knew something the experimenter theoretically did not: where the noisemaker was really hidden. When the experimenter came back, they began pretending to try to open the wrong box. More than 75 percent of the time, the apes would reach for, and help them unlock, the right box instead.

In other versions of the drama, where the experimenter watched the sneak switch the object’s location, the apes didn’t seem to care which box the experimenter eventually opened. They knew the experimenter had this handled. The authors say the findings are another strike against the idea that ToM is a human-only phenomenon.

Developmental psychologist Uta Frith was unaffiliated with the research, but told The Guardian that she found it encouraging. “That is very nice because in evolution there is nothing that comes out of the blue from nowhere.”

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