Magpies are no bird brains

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Thursday, 8 February 2018

A study by The University of Western Australia and the University of Exeter in England have tested the cognitive abilities of magpies and found their learning ability and memory is significantly advanced. They found wild magpies living in larger groups are smarter than magpies living in smaller groups. The study also found smarter female magpies had greater reproductive success. The research suggests that the demands of living in complex social groups may play a role in the evolution of intelligence.

UWA researchers examined the cognitive performance of 14 wild groups of Australian magpies (Western Australian subspecies Cracticus tibicen dorsalis) in Perth, ranging in size from three to 12 birds. The birds were tested away from other birds to prevent social factors influencing the results.

UWA lead researcher Dr Ben Ashton, with co-authors Dr Amanda Ridley and Dr Alex Thornton, tested the cognitive ability of each magpie with four cognitive tasks that tested inhibitory control, associative learning, reversal learning and spatial memory.

The tasks included a detour-reaching task, where the birds had to find food hidden in a transparent cylinder, two foraging tasks to test associative learning, where food was hidden in different coloured containers and a memory task where a food reward was hidden in the same place many times. 

The challenges of living in complex social groups have long been seen as drivers of cognitive evolution, however evidence to support this is contentious, and has recently been called into question,” Dr Ashton said.

He said it was possible that differences in energy intake and task attention could also affect cognitive performance, and for this reason body weight, foraging efficiency and reluctance to engage in the task were also taken into account in the study. 

“Our results suggest that the social environment plays a key role in the development of cognition,” Dr Ashton said.

“They also suggest a positive relationship between female cognitive performance and reproductive success indicating there is the potential for natural selection to act on cognition.

“Together, these results support the idea that the social environment plays an important role in cognitive evolution.”

This is one of the first studies to conduct large-scale cognitive tests on wild populations and find a strong link between cognition, group size and reproductive success.

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