“To understand how a mind other than ours can work is a major intellectual challenge,” said zoologist Alex Kacelnik, professor of behavioral ecology at Oxford University. “On its own it’s fascinating.”
In a task designed to test their tool-making prowess and rare a “window into how another animals’ minds work”, New Caledonian crows spontaneously put together two short sticks to make a longer “fishing rod” to reach a piece of food, according to the journal Scientific Reports.
“We are [working with engineers] to give robots the same problems we give the birds,” said Kacelnik. “Imagine the possibility of building artificial intelligence that can actually want what you are interested in doing, and can achieve it by a means that you haven’t thought of before.”
New Caledonian crows are known to spontaneously use tools in the wild. This task, designed by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, and the University of Oxford, presented the birds with a novel problem that they needed to make a new tool in order to solve.
Scientists designed the puzzle box specifically to test the crows’ tool-making skills that contains food behind a door that left a narrow gap along the bottom. With the food deep inside the box and only short sticks – too short to reach the food – the crows were left to work out what to do.
The sticks were designed to be combinable – one was hollow to allow the other to slot inside. And with no demonstration or help, four out of the eight crows inserted one stick into another and used the resulting longer tool to fish for and extract the food from the box.
“They have never seen this compound tool, but somehow they can predict its properties,” explained researcher, Kacelnik. “So they can predict what something that does not yet exist would do if they made it. Then they can make it and they can use it. That means that the standard idea that animals try everything at random and improve by reinforcement – that’s not enough.”
The Daily Galaxy via Scientific Reports and BBC Science