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The Farm Sanctuary

Chickens Are Much, Much Smarter Than They Look

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The Farm Sanctuary

Why did the chicken cross the road? We don’t know, but it probably had its reasons. A new paper published in the journal Animal Cognition reports that the barnyard birds’ intelligence and social skills are far more complex than we thought.

Lori Marino is senior scientist for The Someone Project, which aims to challenge popular misconceptions about chickens, cows, pigs, and other farm animals. Her report, which was partially funded by the ASPCA, describes experiment after experiment showing that chickens are, in fact, very complex animals with rich inner and outer lives.

Last year was a big year for bird intelligence research. in 2016, scientists reported that some birds are at least as smart as apes. They found tool-making crows and clever pigeons and puzzle-solving bullfinches. The phrase “birdbrain” began to lose its meaning.

But amid the myth-shattering, some birds got more attention than others. “There’s not a lot of scientific work being done on chicken cognition,” Marino tells mental_floss, “because if you assume an animal doesn’t have a given trait, you aren’t going to study it. But what research there has been is very, very compelling.”

For example: Studies have found that chickens have object permanence—that is, they understand that when you cover something, it does not go away—a skill humans develop around age one. They’re also capable of counting and basic arithmetic, even as chicks. They understand logic and simple reasoning, including some concepts we don’t understand until we’re six or seven years old. They have some sense of time and complex social relationships. They have distinct personalities and show one another empathy.

“Chickens have a mind. They have a life,” Marino says. “They’re not just these dumb, inert objects scratching in the dust. It is like something to be a chicken.”

Why is that so hard for us to believe? “It’s a perfect storm,” Marino explains. The first problem is our longstanding skepticism of avian cognitive ability—the "birdbrain" idea. We’re getting over that, but “the history is there,” she says. “The other thing is that, well, we eat them.”

People have a vested interest in thinking of farm animals as inanimate commodities, Marino says, because otherwise we’d start feeling bad about killing and eating them. Instead, we focus on turning them into better meat—a strategy that she believes dulls our scientific rigor and robs us of the chance to learn more about our fellow organisms. 

“Most of the work that’s done on chickens, fish, and cows tends to involve trying to figure out how to make them lay more eggs or grow faster or not peck each other,” she said. “It’s all very applied, and it misses the whole point. These are animals who have an evolutionary and adaptive history just like a chimpanzee or a dog or a human being. They’re animals. And at the very least, we need to approach them as animals in their own right.”

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iStock
10 Amazing Facts About Our Bond With Dogs
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iStock

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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