Animal master-burglars: Cockatoos 'pick' puzzle box locks (w/ Video)

Jul 03, 2013
This image shows a cockatoo called 'Muppet' solving the bolt-type lock on a puzzle box. Scientists from Oxford University, Vienna University and the Max Planck Institute, have found that Goffin's cockatoos can solve complex mechanical problems that involve undoing a series of locks one after another. Credit: Alice Auersperg

A species of Indonesian parrot can solve complex mechanical problems that involve undoing a series of locks one after another, revealing new depths to physical intelligence in birds.

A team of scientists from Oxford University, the University of Vienna, and the Max Planck Institute, report in PLOS ONE a study in which ten untrained Goffin's [Cacatua goffini] faced a puzzle box showing food (a nut) behind a transparent door secured by a series of five different interlocking devices, each one jamming the next along in the series.

To retrieve the nut the had to first remove a pin, then a screw, then a bolt, then turn a wheel 90 degrees, and then shift a latch sideways. One bird, called 'Pipin', cracked the problem unassisted in less than two hours, and several others did it after being helped either by being presented with the series of locks incrementally or being allowed to watch a skilled partner doing it.

The scientists were interested in the birds' progress towards the solution, and on what they knew once they had solved the full task.

The team found that the birds worked determinedly to sort one obstacle after another even though they were only rewarded with the nut once they had solved all five devices. The scientists suggest that the birds seemed to progress as if they employed a 'cognitive ratchet' process: once they discovered how to solve one lock they rarely had any difficulties with the same device again. This, the scientists argue, is consistent with the birds having a representation of the goal they were after.

The puzzle box lock mechanism (original configuration)

After the cockatoos mastered the entire sequence the scientists investigated whether the birds had learnt how to repeat a sequence of actions or instead responded to the effect of each lock.

Dr Alice Auersperg, who led the study at the Goffin Laboratory at Vienna University, said: 'After they had solved the initial problem, we confronted six subjects with so-called 'Transfer tasks' in which some locks were re-ordered, removed, or made non-functional. Statistical analysis showed that they reacted to the changes with immediate sensitivity to the novel situation.'

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Credit: Oxford University

Professor Alex Kacelnik of Oxford University's Department of Zoology, a co-author of the study, said: 'We cannot prove that the birds understand the physical structure of the problem as an adult human would, but we can infer from their behaviour that they are sensitive to how objects act on each other, and that they can learn to progress towards a distant goal without being rewarded step-by-step.'

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Credit: Oxford University

Dr Auguste von Bayern, another co-author from Oxford University said: 'The birds' sudden and often errorless improvement and response to changes indicates pronounced behavioural plasticity and practical memory. We believe that they are aided by species characteristics such as intense curiosity, tactile exploration techniques and persistence: cockatoos explore surrounding objects with their bill, tongue and feet. A purely visual explorer may have never detected that they could move the locks.'

Professor Kacelnik said: 'It would be too easy to say that the cockatoos understand the problem, but this claim will only be justified when we can reproduce the details of the animals' response to a large battery of novel physical problems.'

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More information: A report of the research, entitled 'Explorative learning and functional inferences on a five-step means-means-end problem in Goffin's cockatoos (Cacatua goffini)' is to be published in PLOS ONE: dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0068979

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User comments : 21

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Grallen
3.3 / 5 (3) Jul 03, 2013
Awesome
Alexander Riccio
2.5 / 5 (2) Jul 03, 2013
FRED PREVIC
VendicarE
5 / 5 (2) Jul 03, 2013
Very good article, and very good research.
axemaster
5 / 5 (1) Jul 03, 2013
You know, we're lucky we were first. Otherwise we'd be the ones locked up in cages, doing endless experiments.
Thrasymachus
2 / 5 (2) Jul 04, 2013
You know, we're lucky we were first. Otherwise we'd be the ones locked up in cages, doing endless experiments.


You know, I wonder about that. Parrot-type birds have been around for at least the last 50 million years or so, and the cockatoo group is among the oldest of the Psittacines. And birds in general were around during the Cretaceous period. And they are descendants of dinosaurs, which had hundreds of millions of years of dominance. So far as we can tell, none of them ever developed a technological, language-based lifestyle. And such a lifestyle would certainly leave some fairly glaring evidence.

Though maybe if we cross bred a parrot with a pig, we'd get a bird-man. We could name it Charlie Parker.
Madelien
not rated yet Jul 04, 2013
This is so interesting! Thanks for the read. Where can I get a box like this for my parrot to play with? =)
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (4) Jul 04, 2013
You know, we're lucky we were first.

Which is not so surprising as nature selects for what works (to pass the genes on) and not for intelligence (intelligence is A trait that helps - not THE trait)
And if a species is very effective at doing that through other means (e.g. for dinosaurs, ...but also for birds which are their closest relatives) then it is unlikely to develop intelligence.

Birds have far ranging huntnig grounds for food and wide ranging availability for mates due to the ability to fly. There is little that could put 'evolutionary pressure' on such a setup to further intelligence beyond a certain point.

Humans on the other hand are mediocre: No tough skin, no fast movement, no claws, no teeth to speak of, not the most effective intestinal tract,... and it is EXACTLY that mediocrity in all other areas that has left intelligence as the only 'out' for the specie to survive.
Isaacsname
5 / 5 (1) Jul 04, 2013
Having grown up in a household with many different birds, I can confirm that they are insanely curious, and left to their own devices in the proximity of human technology, they will eventually take over the world.

Having spent the past 2 years working with wild bluejays in my backyard, I was impressed to discover that when the peanuts were withheld from the Jays, they would fly off, get an empty shell from whatever spot they normally ate them in, and come back, fly by my window and throw it at me, just to give me the hint.

Great article
xeb
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 04, 2013
"We were lucky" (...)
One more domain should be argued for: the relation of (scale, degrees of freedom etc. of) manipulators to niches' resource distribution and pattern of socialization.
What specific parameters decide about possibility of learning/passing tool-use with: hands, trunks, fins, beaks etc? How such manipulators energetic features relate to e.g. any possible metal industry?
Maybe, topology-energetics of apes bodies is the main factor why we were first (certainly not on all planets - dense populations of insect-like somethings should also in some situations have a chance to emerge "civilization").
thingumbobesquire
1 / 5 (2) Jul 04, 2013
zorro6204
not rated yet Jul 04, 2013
The last one was pretty good, immediate visual understanding that the bolt could be moved without even touching the wheel. But, I recall that work with crows has shown that the birds did not "understand" the relationship between the steps, that it was just trial and error and very good retention of the results.
ValeriaT
1 / 5 (3) Jul 04, 2013
The chimpanzee can remember the order of many digital symbols and reproduce it with impressible speed. This indicates, the animals do replace the logical thinking with remembering of extensive workflow pattern and they're even equipped for it better than humans - which could make an impression of bright intelligence.
gwrede
1 / 5 (3) Jul 06, 2013
We cannot prove that the birds understand the physical structure of the problem as an adult human would,
and
It would be too easy to say that the cockatoos understand the problem, but this claim will only be justified when we can reproduce the details of the animals' response to a large battery of novel physical problems.
I have seen people who would not understand this kind of a mechanism. I've also seen people who would solve it by pure trial-and-error, never even bothering to think or understand.

Therefore, these parrots really do better than at least a part of people.

There is no doubt in my mind that if all humans were to die of some sudden pandemic, within a couple of million years there will be the next species dominating the planet.

(And of course, I expect this post to get massively downvoted by the usual suspects.)
gwrede
1 / 5 (3) Jul 06, 2013
This is so interesting! Thanks for the read. Where can I get a box like this for my parrot to play with? =)
If you were above the IQ of the parrot, then you could build one. But even thinking of getting this for your parrot is commendable and emphatic. Thumbs up for your search of a box.

antialias_physorg
2.5 / 5 (2) Jul 06, 2013
There is no doubt in my mind that if all humans were to die of some sudden pandemic, within a couple of million years there will be the next species dominating the planet.

Domination does not require intelligence. Look at dinosaurs. Tens of millions of years being the dominant species and not once did they go for intelligence - because there was no need.

We haven't even 'dominated' for 1% of that time. Arguably there's still some way to go until it can be shown that intelligence is the best way to do it.
gwrede
1 / 5 (3) Jul 08, 2013
There is no doubt in my mind that if all humans were to die of some sudden pandemic, within a couple of million years there will be the next species dominating the planet.
Domination does not require intelligence. Look at dinosaurs. Tens of millions of years being the dominant species and not once did they go for intelligence - because there was no need.
Well, the word "dominating" can obviously be understood in several ways.

What I do say, is that if you look at a squirrel or mouse using their hands, these parrots opening locks, racoons opening similar locks (they stole my food in Grand Canyon, I should have had a real padlock), crows using tools, and quite a few other species, including the apes, you see that all of them are within a million years from building non-trivial tools. And from there, it only takes a hundred thousand years to have cars and airplanes.

According to some, dolphins already match our mental abilities, but alas, they can't manipulate objects.
antialias_physorg
1 / 5 (2) Jul 08, 2013
you see that all of them are within a million years from building non-trivial tools. And from there, it only takes a hundred thousand years to have cars and airplanes.

Only if there's any kind of pressure. If there are tools that do the job well (e.g. straws for chimps to fish for ants, or rocks for birds to crack mussles) then we shouldn't expect this to lead to more complex tools in and of itself.

There's little point in replacing a workeable tool with a more complex tool that works equally well (or even a marginally better) if constructing that tool takes more additional energy than it saves in the short run.

but alas, they can't manipulate objects.

They have no need to.

Intelligence and tool use aren't THE evolutionary path. They are AN evolutionary path for a species that can't compete anywhere else.
Thrasymachus
not rated yet Jul 09, 2013
Look at dinosaurs. Tens of millions of years being the dominant species and not once did they go for intelligence

Read more at: http://phys.org/n...html#jCp

Since when were dinosaurs a species? They're pretty much their own class, way up the chain from "species." For various definitions of "dominance," I think it's pretty clear that humans are the first species that has "dominated" the planet. No other single species has precipitated climate change at the rate we are causing it. No other single species has reshaped as many biomes, or altered the selective pressures on so many of their fellow species to the degree and at the rate that mankind has. There'd be pretty abundant evidence of it if it had happened in the past.

But neither does it make sense to presume that if humans suddenly went extinct, another sapient organism would arise in its place in short order. Hundreds of millions of years without one argues against it.
antialias_physorg
1 / 5 (1) Jul 09, 2013
I think it's pretty clear that humans are the first species that has "dominated" the planet

Is it? By what criterium
Biomass?
Breadth of environmental conditions in which a species lives?
Numbers?

In none of these are humans (even close to) number one.

Humans are only dominant by human standards. And as long as the 'winning' species makes up the standards those standards are pretty meaningless.

No other single species has precipitated climate change at the rate we are causing it.

There'd be pretty abundant evidence of it if it had happened in the past.

And there is. The air you breathe.
You are aware that Earth's atmosphere didn't start off with oxygen in it, aren't you?
Human made climate change - threatening to our way of life as it currently is - is a pittance to what anaerobic bacteria did billions of years ago.
Neinsense99
1 / 5 (4) Jul 14, 2013
Now, instead of claiming it was all an inside job, the conspiracy theorists can claim it was the cockatoos, preferably a royal family of cockatoos disguised as humans. Yeah, that's it. That's the ticket...
Neinsense99
1 / 5 (4) Jul 14, 2013
Very good article, and very good research.

And you didn't have to use 'tard'!