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Iida Loukola/QMUL
Iida Loukola/QMUL

Bees Can Teach Each Other to Play Ball

Iida Loukola/QMUL
Iida Loukola/QMUL

Beauty, brains, and buddy-system learning: It seems bumblebees have it all. Scientists say bees can teach each other to move a tiny ball into a tiny goal—even though soccer is most definitely not a skill bees would ever need in the wild. A report on the bees’ sweet skills was published in the journal Science.

Humans have historically written off other animals as unintelligent, in part because they don’t behave the same way we do. But a growing body of research suggests that it’s our tests, not our test subjects, that need to get smarter. The more thoughtful our experiments become, the more we’ve realized that animals like apes, birds, fish, and even bugs have impressive cognitive abilities of their own.

Previous studies have shown that bees can learn new behaviors and teach them to one another, but these studies have mostly focused on behaviors that might come in handy for bees foraging in the wild. Researchers at Queen Mary University of London wondered if these learning abilities extended to new, non-survival-related activities—like, say, pushing a ball into a goal.

They set up a minuscule field and created three different scenarios. In the first, uninitiated bees watched other, trained bees (let’s call them coaches) score goals and get a sweet reward—a sucrose solution. In the second, a “ghost demonstrator” (actually a magnet) moved the ball. In the third, the bees received no demonstrations.

The new bees proved eager learners, picking up the game from both coaches and ghosts. Bees who had bee coaches were more likely to succeed, but those with magnets eventually got the idea, too. What’s more, they sometimes played better than their teachers, selecting balls nearer to the net to ensure a more efficient goal—and quicker access to the reward.

"The bees solved the task in a different way than what was demonstrated,” co-lead author Olli J. Loukola said in a statement, “suggesting that observer bees did not simply copy what they saw, but improved on it. This shows an impressive amount of cognitive flexibility, especially for an insect."

These itsy-bitsy soccer games are as important as they are adorable, said project supervisor and co-lead author Lars Chittka. "Our study puts the final nail in the coffin of the idea that small brains constrain insects to have limited behavioural flexibility and only simple learning abilities."

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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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