Tag Archives: animal intelligence

Football-playing bees exhibit complex learning

Researchers have trained bumblebees to score goals using a mini-ball. This highlights an unexpected and unprecedented ability of the insects to learn new, complex tasks.

Footballing bees are much smarter than you think. Credit: Copyright Iida LoukolaClose

Professor Lars Chittka from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) works at the intersection between sensory physiology, learning psychology, and evolutionary ecology. He previously showed something very interesting about bees — that they too get false memories. Honeybees and bumblebees rely on scent, taste, and color to find food (nectar), so they map this sensory information for later use, but they don’t always get it right. Just like us, sometimes they make mistakes and sometimes they get lost. Now, Chittka and his colleagues wanted to see how bees can react to a completely new situation and how they learn to adapt to it. Again, they found similarities to us.

“We wanted to explore the cognitive limits of bumblebees by testing whether they could use a non-natural object in a task likely never encountered before by any individual in the evolutionary history of bees,” said Dr Clint Perry, joint lead author and also from QMUL’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences.

They trained bees to play football to get some delicious food. The first stage of the training was to show the bees how to identify and find the ball. After that, they had to move the ball to another location. The bees were split into three groups. Some of them watched a previously trained bee accomplish the task, the second group watched a “phantom demonstration” (a magnet moving the ball around), while the third group received no information at all. They simply had to figure it out — which they did, even though the first two groups had an easier time learning the task. But the most impressive feat was that they kicked the ball in a different way than they were taught, indicating that they had an understanding of what they were doing and not merely copying what they had seen. Joint lead author Dr Olli J. Loukola, said:

“The bees solved the task in a different way than what was demonstrated, 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.”

During the initial demonstrations, researchers used a single ball, but after a while, they used three balls, sometimes of varying colors. The bees always chose the ball that was closest to the center (where they had to bring it), showing that they were actively trying to ease their tasks. Even when this involved walking backward (when the demonstrator bee had walked forward), they still preferred the closest ball. Scientists weren’t really expecting them to learn so quickly and effectively but this may be due to the fact that we haven’t really seen bees under mental pressure. Dr Loukola added:

“It may be that bumblebees, along with many other animals, have the cognitive capabilities to solve such complex tasks, but will only do so if environmental pressures are applied to necessitate such behaviours.”

Another interesting takeaway from this study is that you don’t really need a big brain to be smart. Tool usage (especially unnatural tool usage) is a hallmark of cognitive complexity abilities. At one point in the past, tool use was ascribed to humans alone, then was extended to primates, next to marine animals, and later to birds. It seems pretty clear that we have to extend this to insects as well. Lars Chittka concludes:

“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.”

Journal Reference: Olli J. Loukola, Clint J. Perry, Louie Coscos, Lars Chittka — Bumblebees show cognitive flexibility by improving on an observed complex behavior. Science, 2017 DOI: 10.1126/science.aag2360

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Ravens can tell if someone is watching even though they don’t see them

If you can see a person or an animal, then it is possible to be seen back. It’s a basic caveat they train in the military when discussing camouflage. What’s more, if you suspect you’re being seen, you must minimize your movements. This level of abstraction was thought to be unique to humans. It’s been recently shown that ravens too are capable of imagining someone is spying on them and take greater care hiding their food, as reported in Nature Communications.

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Image: Pixabay

University of Vienna researchers trained 10 ravens over the course of six months in a special experimental setup. These were placed in adjoining rooms separated by a window, each raven with its own space. Initially the window was left uncovered, so one of the two ravens that faced each other could see when the other was hiding food. Later, the cover was hung leaving only a small peephole which the ravens learned they could use to see or be seen through.

(a) Observed (Obs) condition: The cover of the window is open (white bar) and the focal subject (storer, st) caches food in the visual presence of a conspecific (observer). (b) Non-observed (Non) condition: The cover of the window is closed (grey bar) and the focal subject caches food in visual isolation of a conspecific (non-observer). Both observers and non-observers make sounds in the experimental chamber, which are audible to the storer. (c) Peephole (Peep) condition: The cover of the window is closed (grey bar) but one of the two peepholes (small white square) is open; the focal subject caches food in the absence of any behavioural cues, whereas the presence of conspecifics is simulated via playback of sounds recorded from non-observed trials (symbolized by loudspeaker). Credit: Nature Communications

(a) Observed (Obs) condition: The cover of the window is open (white bar) and the focal subject (storer, st) caches food in the visual presence of a conspecific (observer). (b) Non-observed (Non) condition: The cover of the window is closed (grey bar) and the focal subject caches food in visual isolation of a conspecific (non-observer). Both observers and non-observers make sounds in the experimental chamber, which are audible to the storer. (c) Peephole (Peep) condition: The cover of the window is closed (grey bar) but one of the two peepholes (small white square) is open; the focal subject caches food in the absence of any behavioural cues, whereas the presence of conspecifics is simulated via playback of sounds recorded from non-observed trials (symbolized by loudspeaker). Credit: Nature Communications

Once bootcamp was over, the researchers played an audible track which sounded like a raven was in the process of hiding food (scratching, pecking, dirt being displaced). Only when the peephole was left uncovered did the raven bother to take extra care in hiding its food. The bird hurried to hide the food and once the audio track stopped playing, the raven returned to the hiding spot to improve the concealment. If the peephole was closed the raven was careless, concluding there was no one spying anyway.

Research on chimpanzees suggests that they too can understand what others are seeing. Like other animals, they do so by studying “gaze cues” like head and eye movements. It’s not clear whether chimpanzees or other animals can pick up these cues when they can’t actually see the face or eyes of whomever might spy them.

“This strongly suggests that ravens make generalisations based on their experience, and do not merely interpret and respond to behavioural cues from other birds,” said Thomas Bugnyar, a professor at the University of Vienna.

Ravens are very, very smart animals capable of sophisticated mental abilities, like other corvids. In one logic test, the raven had to get a hanging piece of food by pulling up a bit of the string, anchoring it with its claw, and repeating until the food was in reach. Many ravens got the food on the first try, some within 30 seconds. In the wild, ravens have pushed rocks on people to keep them from climbing to their nests, stolen fish by pulling a fishermen’s line out of ice holes, and played dead beside a beaver carcass to scare other ravens away from a delicious feast. Ravens can also imitate people or use gestures to point out things and communicate.

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