Cockatoos are able to combine simple tools and complete complex tasks, which is a remarkable feat that can not be found in primates.
Researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, University of Birmingham and University of Vienna believe that the findings may shed light on the evolution of tools design and use by our ancestors.
The research was published in Scientific Reports. is also part of an international, interdisciplinary project that compares children’s problem solving and innovation skills to those of cockatoos.
Animals are not known for their use of tools. This is especially true of compound tools that have two or more elements attached, like a spear or an axe. These tools have been used in recreational activities like golf, hockey, or cricket, which is why the study design was inspired.
The team created a game called golf for one bird species, the Goffin’s cockatoo. This bird is well-known for its problem solving abilities and ability to use only single tools like sticks to open nut and seed shells.
The birds had to move a ball through the hole and into a box. Next, they used a stick to push it to the other side of the box. This will trigger a trapdoor mechanism. The bird then gets a cashew nut.
Three cockatoos were able to figure out how to move the ball to release the treat using the stick. This is a great example of high-level tool innovation.
Antonio Osuna–Mascaro, a lead researcher at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, stated: “One of my favorite aspects of the experiment was to see how each animal invented its own gripping technique and how to hit the ball. Sometimes with amazing dexterity.” One bird held the stick between his mandibles while the other one held it between his beak tip, tongue, and claw. This was similar to primate behavior.
Sarah Beck, Professor of Cognitive Development at the University of Birmingham is co-author and collaborator. Her research focuses on the relationships between birds and children when they learn how to use tools.
She stated that children are good at using technology and tools in their daily lives (think spoons, ipads!) Our research shows that children under 8 years old often have difficulty inventing new solutions to problems that involve tool use. Children under eight years old can have difficulty solving problems that cockatoos can solve.
This study, while it is the first to demonstrate that cockatoos can use tools to solve problems, also contributes to our ongoing work with children. It’s tempting to think that it’s just a matter of who is smarter: children or cockatoos. Instead, comparing different species allows us to understand how humans and other species can develop amazing technological skills.
Alice Auersperg is another author and heads the Goffin Lab at Vienna’s Messerli Research Institute. She comments that “I believe that studying the spatial relationships animals are attending and how they use them to enable tool innovations will be key in getting us better insight into technology evolution.” Our research team is currently focused on improving our understanding of how complex tools are used.