Quack! Quack! Quack!
“You’ve got birdbrains.” “He is a quack.” “You’re stupid like a duckling.” Two of those are everyday phrases, but all may have been proven to be slightly less than truthful. Wake up the duckling sitting next to you. This ducktale is all that it is quacked up to be.
Behavioral ecologists from the University of Oxford had the absolutely adorable task of observing baby ducks hours after they were born. The ducklings were hatched in a dark room, moved to a different room with a pair of objects, and left alone for 25 minutes. The objects could be the same or different color or shape. During this time, the researchers took advantage of something called imprinting. For those of you who haven’t watched the 1996 tearjerker Fly Away Home recently and are in need of a refresher, imprinting is when an animal baby gains behavioral characteristics from a parent or whatever moving object is around during their first few hours of life. It’s how baby birds learn to migrate, fly, and even hunt.
Anyhow, after 25 minutes, the ducklings were taken from the objects and placed back into the dark room. When presented with two pairs of objects the second time around, one group of objects that were the same and one group of objects that were different, the ducklings waddled toward what they had experienced before. If they saw objects that were the same, they bopped over to the same, and vice versa. In other words, they were not so much memorizing the objects as they had an affinity for the concept "same" or "different."
While other animals have shown the capability to understand abstract thoughts like these -- rats, bees, and monkeys, oh my – unlike other animals, there was minimal training required for the ducklings to process this information. These waddlers would even outperform humans who, at 7 months old, would take exposure to 4 pairs of objects to understand the same concept.
Ducklings are cute and everything, but why does this matter? Despite this finding, chances are we don’t have to worry about ducks becoming intelligent enough to take over the world. Us humans now have to reevaluate the importance of different cognitive abilities, like abstract thought. Also, researchers have to delve into whether we use the same mechanisms as ducks to understand the concept of similarity and differences. Needless to say, this mystery is anything but a lame duck!
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