'Divide and rule'—raven politics

October 31, 2014
Cognitive biologists now revealed that ravens use a "divide and rule" strategy in dealing with the bonds of conspecifics. Credit: Jorg Massen

Mythology has attributed many supernatural features to ravens. Studies on the cognitive abilities of ravens have indeed revealed that they are exceptionally intelligent. Ravens live in complex social groups and they can gain power by building social bonds that function as alliances. Cognitive biologists of the University of Vienna now revealed that ravens use a 'divide and rule' strategy in dealing with the bonds of conspecifics: Socially well integrated ravens prevent others from building new alliances by breaking up their bonding attempts.

Thomas Bugnyar and his team have been studying the behavior of approximately 300 wild in the Northern Austrian Alps for years. They observed that ravens slowly build alliances through affiliative interactions such as grooming and playing. However, they also observed that these affiliative interactions were regularly interrupted by a third individual. Although in about 50 % of the cases these interventions were successful and broke up the two affiliating ravens, intervening can be potentially risky when the two affiliating ravens team up and chase away the intervening individual.

Interestingly, the researchers found that these interventions did not occur at random. Specifically ravens that already have an alliance tend to interrupt the affiliative interactions of those individuals that are in the process of establishing one. "Because of their already established power, allied ravens can afford such risky strategies", explains lead-author Jorg Massen: "They specifically target those ravens that are about to establish a new alliance, and might thereby prevent them from becoming future competitors through a divide and rule strategy."

Massen furthermore underlines that at the time of intervention the birds that are trying to establish an alliance are no threat yet to the already allied ravens. "It thus seems that the ravens keep track of the relationships of others and have a keen understanding of when to intervene in affiliative interactions and when not; i.e. not when these are just loose flirts, but also not when the alliance is already established and it is already too late", says Jorg Massen. This is the first time that such a sophisticated political maneuver has been described in animals other than humans.

Explore further: Ravens understand the relations among others

More information: Massen, J.J.M., Szipl, G., Spreafico, M. & Bugnyar, T (2014). Ravens intervene in others' bonding attempts. Current Biology. Published online October 30th, 2014. dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2014.09.073

Related Stories

Ravens understand the relations among others

April 23, 2014

Like many social mammals, ravens form different types of social relationships – they may be friends, kin, or partners and they also form strict dominance relations. From a cognitive perspective, understanding one's own ...

Ravens remember relationships they had with others

April 19, 2012

In daily life we remember faces and voices of several known individuals. Similarly, mammals have been shown to remember calls and faces of known individuals after a number of years. Markus Boeckle and Thomas Bugnyar from ...

Ravens rule Idaho's artificial roosts

August 11, 2014

A new study by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and Idaho State University (ISU) explored how habitat alterations, including the addition of energy transmission towers, affect avian predators ...

'Look at that!' -- ravens use gestures, too

November 29, 2011

Pointing and holding up objects in order to attract attention has so far only been observed in humans and our closest living relatives, the great apes. Simone Pika from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and Thomas ...

Recommended for you

Gene editing in the brain gets a major upgrade

October 19, 2017

Genome editing technologies have revolutionized biomedical science, providing a fast and easy way to modify genes. However, the technique allowing scientists to carryout the most precise edits, doesn't work in cells that ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.