July 16, 2003

Small-Brained Creatures of Surprisingly High Intelligence

Haunted by pictures of tool-making crows:

Making Light: Tool-making crows: Not a new story, but it’s haunted me since it came out last year in Science Magazine online:

In the Brevia section of the 9 August 2002 issue of Science, Weir et al. report a remarkable observation: The toolmaking behavior of New Caledonian crows. In the experiments, a captive female crow, confronted with a task that required a curved tool (retrieving a food-containing bucket from a vertical pipe), spontaneously bent a piece of straight wire into a hooked shape—and then repeated the behavior in nine out of ten subsequent trials. Though these crows are known to employ tools in the wild using natural materials, this bird had no prior training with the use of pliant materials such as wire—a fact that makes its apparently spontaneous, highly specific problem-solving all the more interesting, and raises intriguing questions about the evolutionary preconditions for complex cognition. The crow’s behavior was captured on an unusual video clip. …

The first time I saw the movie, it gave me goosebumps. The food’s in a little metal bucket with a handle, down at the bottom of a glass tube. The crow has only the piece of wire to work with.

At first it stabs and prods at the food with the unbent wire. Then, when it decides that that approach isn’t going to work, it bends the wire—briskly, expertly, without fumbling or hesitation or false starts—to just the right length and angle needed to fish the bucket out of the tube. It then proceeds to fish up the bucket—again, without fumbling or hesitation. That bird knows exactly what it’s doing. I know a lot of humans who wouldn’t have done any better.

So the movie’s cool. But of all animals, why a New Caledonian crow? That thing has a brain the size of a fava bean.

There's only one possible answer: successful nanotechnology. Let me be among the first to welcome our black, winged, small-brained overlords Posted by DeLong at July 16, 2003 08:48 AM | TrackBack

Comments

Nevermore
There are scattered reports that they mimic human speech.

PS Can I ask you a question?
If the federal Budget were frozen in 2000 what would the deficit be for the last two years? And how much of the shortfall in outlays is do to the tax cut?
http://www.cbo.gov/showdoc.cfm?index=1821&sequence=0#table1

Posted by: Bruce Ferguson on July 16, 2003 03:57 PM

I've seen an anecdote (in, i think, a book by Bernd Heinrichs, a biologist who studies ravens) describing a raven which hung around a construction site where some blasting was going on.

The raven started saying "Three Two One Boom!" (presumably with a realistically mimiced explosion noise rather than the literal 'boom')

Heinrichs' books are recommended.

Posted by: Jon H on July 16, 2003 05:33 PM


Instinct or thought? While not as profound (and not tool production), Workmen at a construction site were having their lunches abscoded for several days. A worksite prank? They then saw and taped crows opening the spring loaded latches on lunch buckets, pushing the lid open and flying away with PB&J sandwiches.

Another example (and while not nano-brained), Chimpanzees make tools to treat themselves to termites -- "on a stick" -- by making a tool from a reed, coating its end with sticky tree sap, then poking the straw into the termite nest and withdrawing the reed coated with scores of termites.

Sea Otters breaking open clams with a rock?

Necessity is truly the mother of invention.

Posted by: Don Majors on July 16, 2003 06:14 PM

Nice post. Roads are covered with dead mammals, but you never see a dead bird. I therefore conclude that birds are smarter than mammals.
Young Japanese, um, howler monkeys learned to separate grain from sand by throwing it on the water. The older monkeys learned it from the younger ones, and they then passed it on through the generations. Communicable skills. Of course, birds learn their songs from other birds, and mess them up in isolation.

Posted by: John Isbell on July 16, 2003 08:18 PM

OK, before we go blaming nanotechnology for the wonders of bird intelligence, let me point out that crows have immensely huge brains...for a *bird* their size. I believe parrots are the big competitors here. Now, going from memory, neither of these creatures look that brainy when you compare raw brain size or brain/body size ratios to many mammals. But the really important thing to note here is that they *are not mammals*. Rather, birds are feathery miniature dinosaurs, and their encephalization quotients (brain size relative to body size) are much, much higher than those of the dinosaurs. (And dinosaurs were smart enough to rule the planet for a loooong time.) Reptilian (and avian) brains are fascinating compared to mammalian brains because they are rather different in their overall neuroanatomy and size, but no less capable unless you comapre them to the most absurdly brainy of all the mammals. Interestingly, that select group includes Brad DeLong's favorite species, the African plains ape. I could go on, but educated readers interested in a way better account should check out John Allman's beautiful book "Evolving Brains". In perhaps another Hayekian moment, Amazon has this for sale now 30% off. :-)

Posted by: Jonathan King on July 16, 2003 08:36 PM

Careful here, otherwise we're soon going to discuss whether we can teach a human-like language to a chimp ;-)

In any case, one can certainly get elephants to play music (depending on defenition and / or taste for music):
http://www.mulatta.org/Thaielephantorch.html

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on July 16, 2003 08:56 PM

With the title I thought Brad was going to say something nice about somebody he generally disagrees with.

Posted by: Stan on July 17, 2003 05:40 AM

I haven't seen her use tools, but our 8-month-old cockatiel is great at untying knots. When she was out of her cage on some newspapers, and one corner was lifted up by a breeze from under a closed door, she walked around to look underneath, as if to see what was keeping the paper up. Then she walked back and pushed it down with her foot.

I can vouch that our bird can understand a number of human (American English)phrases. She gets very excited when asked "Do you want some rice crackers?" (These are one of her favorite foods.) And she knows how to get our attention ....

When she hear the birds in the woods giving their calls, she responds with "I'm a baby bird!"

Posted by: Art Nevsky on July 17, 2003 10:09 AM

I haven't seen her use tools, but our 8-month-old cockatiel is great at untying knots. When she was out of her cage on some newspapers, and one corner was lifted up by a breeze from under a closed door, she walked around to look underneath, as if to see what was keeping the paper up. Then she walked back and pushed it down with her foot.

I can vouch that our bird can understand a number of human (American English)phrases. She gets very excited when asked "Do you want some rice crackers?" (These are one of her favorite foods.) And she knows how to get our attention ....

When she hear the birds in the woods giving their calls, she responds with "I'm a baby bird!"

Posted by: Art Nevsky on July 17, 2003 10:14 AM

Sorry about the double post. As a science writer who has written about functional brain imaging, I find the intelligence of crows/ravens and parrots astounding.

Posted by: Art Nevsky on July 17, 2003 10:30 AM

Sorry about the double post. As a science writer who has written about functional brain imaging, I find the intelligence of crows/ravens and parrots astounding.

Posted by: Art Nevsky on July 17, 2003 10:35 AM

Sorry about the double post. As a science writer who has written about functional brain imaging, I find the intelligence of crows/ravens and parrots astounding.

Posted by: Art Nevsky on July 17, 2003 10:40 AM

Sorry about the double post. As a science writer who has written about functional brain imaging, I find the intelligence of crows/ravens and parrots astounding.

Posted by: Art Nevsky on July 17, 2003 10:45 AM

Bird brains are apparently somewhat more efficient by volume than human--my guess would be that one of the many physiological tradeoffs made in the direction of lightness by avians leads to higher neural efficiency by volumne--at, perhaps, a cost of lower neural energy efficiency.

Study of this question, in my opinion, is hampered by our near-total inability to characterize and measure the what-is-it we call "intelligence." ("Intelligence" tests for humans are very slippery things, and we do not have a cross-species intelligence test at all.)

Posted by: Randolph Fritz on July 17, 2003 11:06 AM

Bird brains are apparently somewhat more efficient by volume than human--my guess would be that one of the many physiological tradeoffs made in the direction of lightness by avians leads to higher neural efficiency by volumne--at, perhaps, a cost of lower neural energy efficiency.

Study of this question, in my opinion, is hampered by our near-total inability to characterize and measure the what-is-it we call "intelligence." ("Intelligence" tests for humans are very slippery things, and we do not have a cross-species intelligence test at all.)

Posted by: Randolph Fritz on July 17, 2003 11:10 AM

Ah, but when will they develop nanometre-sized opposable thumbs?

Posted by: derrida derider on July 18, 2003 05:35 AM

A guy I used to car pool with told me this story. He was driving along the highway and there was a crow in the lane feeding on some dead animal. The wheel was coming right at it, and it didn’t have time to hop away, so it did a “shoulder roll” away from the tire to under the car. When he looked back in the rear view, the crow was back to its meal. You hardly ever see a dead crow on the highway, but plenty of dead gulls.

Anyway, aren’t you afraid of offending the crow gods with that “small brained” comment? You should be a little more careful.

Posted by: northernLights on July 18, 2003 08:49 AM

Anothere testiment to the amazing avian brain - crows never double-post.

Posted by: K Harris on July 18, 2003 09:31 AM

So, Holy Roman Emperor, I hope you are brushing up on your nature type skills so that soon you will be as smart as a crow too.

Essential info I would love to know- did H.R.E. ever double post on his own tablet?

Posted by: northernLights on July 18, 2003 09:45 AM

Another thing- this subject would not in any possible way be related to some recent strange Holy Roman Emperor type meals, now would it?

Posted by: northernLights on July 18, 2003 11:18 AM
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