Persistent Goffin cockatoos show that innovation is not just a human ability.
With complex problems, we’re often told to break them down into smaller, more manageable tasks. By tackling these smaller tasks one at a time, our distant goal will eventually be reached.
Researchers have discovered that the Goffin’s cockatoo, a type of parrot native to Indonesia, can solve a sequence of five problems in order to obtain a treat.
The researchers, from the University of Oxford in the UK, the University of Vienna in Austria and the Max Planck Institute in Germany presented 10 cockatoos with a box containing a tantalizing cashew nut locked behind a see-through plastic door. A series of five locks needed to be unlocked in turn for the birds to reach their treat. The cockatoos needed to remove a pin, then a screw, then a bolt, then turn a wheel and then slide a bar sideways before the door to the cashew could be opened. The locks were interlocking – each lock was unable to be unlocked without the lock before it also being unlocked.
One of the birds, “Pipin,” managed to complete the entire sequence unassisted in less than two hours. Other birds succeeded after watching their peers, or after learning how to unlock individual locks separately. Once a bird had learned the sequence, it was able to repeat the entire sequence without error.
In a further test, the researchers presented the cockatoos with modified boxes, where the locks were rearranged into new sequences.
Instead of attempting to repeat the original sequence of locks, the birds were able to work from the new first lock, through the sequence until their goal was reached. In other words, they were able to innovate new sequences based on their knowledge of how each of the locks worked.
Comparing intelligence across species is notoriously difficult. In this case, the experiment was designed to test the cockatoos’ ability to innovate by presenting them with a set of tasks unlike those they would encounter in their natural environment. The task was also complex enough that they couldn’t easily solve the puzzle through broad-domain learning rules.
Cockatoos, like other parrots, explore their environment through touch – nibbling twigs with their beak, rolling seeds over in their mouth with their tongue, and grabbing with their feet. This touch-based exploration may have helped the cockatoos to solve the sequence of tasks, according to the researchers. Had the birds simply observed the mechanisms visually, they probably would not have found the solution to the problem.
Aside from humans, sequential problem solving involving five separate steps has only previously been seen in great apes; New Caledonian crows can manage three steps.
Check out a video of the cockatoos opening the quintuple-locked box here.
Auersperg AMI, Kacelnik A, & von Bayern (2013). Explorative learning and functional inferences on a five-step means-means-end problem in Goffin’s Cockatoos PLoS ONE DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0068979