Research highlight

Neuroscience: A bird’s eye view of third parties

Nature Communications

April 23, 2014

Ravens are capable of distinguishing different interactions between other ravens and alter their behaviour accordingly, reports a study in Nature Communications this week. The findings demonstrate that ravens, like primates and humans, understand third party relationships.

In many species, understanding relationships between different group members is key to survival and is a core feature of social intelligence. This behaviour is known to occur in humans and primates, as well as other mammals that have similar social organisations and hierarchies. However, it is not clear whether birds also share this understanding of social dynamics. To investigate this, Jorg Massen and colleagues played audio files containing vocal interactions of different ravens to other ravens that are familiar with a specific dominance hierarchy within their social group. They find that ravens show different behaviour profiles (for example, head turns and body shakes) after playbacks that simulate a rank reversal in their group in comparison to playbacks that suggest dominance interactions in line with the current dominance hierarchy.

The authors suggest that these findings support the hypothesis that even though humans and birds have vastly different brain structures, complex cognitive abilities evolved multiple times in these distantly related species in order to solve similar social problems.

doi: 10.1038/ncomms4679

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