Ducklings are smarter than you may have thought

15 Jul 2016

A new study into the logical thinking employed by ducklings has shown that they’re a fair bit smarter than originally thought.

Same and different: a basic concept that most intelligent animals can understand after training.

Primates can tell the difference; canines and felines too, after training. But freshly hatched ducklings? That’s a new one, according to researchers who put the cute birds to the test in the name of science.

The test created by Antone Martinho and Prof Alex Kacelnik, shows the brain’s ability to “deal with abstract properties”.

The duo’s behavioural study involved pairs of shapes – either identical or different in shape or colour – presented to newly hatched ducklings, making them the first thing the mallards ever saw. Later, when shown new pairs of objects, the vast majority of these ducklings preferred to follow pairs exhibiting the same relation to which they had originally encountered. This is called ‘imprinting’, according to the researchers, which is perhaps a way for ducks to survive in the wild and recognise their parents, despite the plethora of smells, sights and sounds surrounding them in their early days.

“To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration of a non-human organism learning to discriminate between abstract relational concepts without any reinforcement training,” said Kacelnic, who works in Oxford University’s zoology department, with the paper published in Science.

There’s a bit more to remembering the initial snapshot of a parent, with Martinho noting the various shapes they manipulate their bodies into throughout their life. For example, a duck’s wings extending out and in produce remarkably different and, therefore, harder to remember guises.

Ducks have the intelligence to process changes like that as they go through life, which is a seemingly new discovery in the animal kingdom. The next stage for this research is a broader look into more species, to establish how many have this relational concept learning nailed on from a young age.

Main duckling image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic