Scientists have just discovered that ducklings understand the abstract concepts “same” and “different”. In a study published in the journal Science, newly hatched ducklings were able to demonstrate relational concept learning, previously only shown in highly intelligent animals such as apes and parrots.
Ducklings learn to follow their mother through a learning process called imprinting. In imprinting, the duckling identifies and follows the animal or object they saw just after hatching. This is almost always the mother and helps the baby ducks stay out of danger.
The researchers took advantage of this imprinting behavior by showing the ducklings test objects after they hatched. They were exposed to a pair of objects that were either the same or different by color or shape. The ducklings were then given a choice of two pairs of objects to follow, neither of which they’d seen before. Over 70% of the ducklings followed the objects that showed the same relationship as the original objects they had imprinted on. For example, if the duckling had been exposed to a pair of matching spheres, they would follow another pair of objects following the same rule. Given the choice between a square-pyramid pair and a pyramid-pyramid pair, they would follow the two pyramids even though all of the objects were novel. The ducklings were equally accurate with both shape and color.
Past research on this type of learning has been focused on animals known for their intelligence, including primates, crows, and parrots. This study shows that the ability to apply logical relationships to novel stimuli, called relational concept learning, may be more common than previously believed. The ducklings were able to think abstractly without any kind of reinforcement training. Past studies have generally used reward-based training in order to teach the animals but the ducklings performed spontaneously due to their ability to imprint. The authors note that further studies are needed to determine exactly how the animals’ brains process this information.
Antone Martinho III, Alex Kacelnik. Ducklings imprint on the relational concept of “same or different”. Science (2016).