One of the commonly perceived factors that sets humans apart from other animals is our ability to understand that others have minds of their own and make assumptions based on this knowledge. However, a new study by researchers at the University of Houston suggests that ravens possess at least some of the human ability to understand that others have minds and adapt their behavior to this understanding.
Ravens, symbols of intelligence and wisdom in many cultures, were chosen for the study due to their similarity in social phases when compared to humans, as well as their previously observed ability to be more cautious with their food cache when competitor ravens are watching.
"There is a time when who is in the pack, who's a friend, who's an enemy can change very rapidly," Cameron Buckner, co-author of the study, said in a press release. "There are not many other species that demonstrate as much social flexibility. Ravens cooperate well. They can compete well. They maintain long-term, monogamous relationships. This all makes them a good place to look for social cognition, because similar social pressures might have driven the evolution of similarly advanced cognitive capacities in very different species."
The researchers utilized two rooms connected by windows and peepholes, both of which could be opened or closed. Prior to the experiment, the team trained the ravens to look through the peepholes and observe the human experimenters making caches of food in the second room.
Once the experiment began, the team covered both windows but left a peephole open. At the same time, they turned on a hidden speaker that played sounds of a raven competitor, although no other raven was actually present. Despite this, the ravens cached their food as if they were being watched.
"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)," the study reads. "Consequently, we argue that they represent 'seeing' in a way that cannot be reduced to the tracking of gaze cues."
The findings were published in the Feb. 2 issue of Nature Communications.