Ravens know if they are being watched by their competitors and respond accordingly.
Humans are not the only ones who can understand the intentions of others of their own kind. New research has found that raven – a bird that is considered a symbol of wisdom and intelligence in many cultures – has the ability to think abstractly about other minds and adapt behaviors according to it.
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Researchers have found that ravens know if their competitors are spying on them. They take extra care to hide their food if they suspect their movements are being watched by another raven, even if they cannot see the other bird.
Many animals like chimpanzees and their other species are closely related to humans. It has been argued that these animals cannot really understand what others see. They rely on ‘gaze cues’ or their ability to see other’s head or eyes movements and respond only to these surface cues.
“It still remains an open question whether any nonhuman animal can attribute the concept ‘seeing’ without relying on behavior cues.” Study authors write.
Researchers selected raven as a subject for studying ‘Theory of Mind’- the ability to attribute mental states including intents, desires, knowledge and vision. Raven is a bird that also goes through several phases in its social life similar to humans despite the obvious evolutionary divergence from humans.
“There is a time when who is in the pack, who’s a friend, who’s an enemy can change rapidly. There are not many other species that demonstrate as much social flexibility." Cameron Buckner, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Houston and co-author of the study said.
“Ravens cooperate well. They can compete well. They maintain long-term, monogamous relationships. This all makes them a good place to look for cognition.”
In a clever set of experiments, researchers used open peepholes and sounds to indicate the presence of a possible competitor, with a raven never physically able to see another raven.
Researchers found that ravens behave differently if they perceive a competitor is watching them. When the peephole was open and sound of another raven was produced, the first raven guarded its food store but it did not show same concern when peephole was closed but sound was hearable.
"We show that ravens ... can generalize from their own experience using the peephole as a pilferer and predict that audible competitors could potentially see their caches (through the peephole)," Authors write. "Consequently, we argue that they represent 'seeing' in a way that cannot be reduced to the tracking of gaze cues."
The findings provide new insight into nonhumans’ capacity to theorize about the mind of other, which was thought to be exclusively human.
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“Finding that Theory of Mind is present in birds would require us to give up a popular story as to what makes humans special,” said Buckner. “But completing this evolutionary and developmental picture will bring us much closer to figuring out what's really unique about the human mind."