Mental Time Travel in Birds
October 20, 2011 Leave a comment
Mental time travel is a term for recalling past events and planning for the future, in terms of animal behaviour. This was originally thought to be a uniquely human ability, but research is gradually showing that other species are indeed capable of impressive acts of planning. This article from Science Daily discusses research on tropical birds that eat insects flushed out of hiding by army ant raids. They show that birds check on ant nests at the end of the day – when they’re not hungry – presumably using this information to plan their hunting for the next day.
Army ants have regular alternating periods of high and low raiding activity, and birds visit the ants’ temporary nest sites (bivouacs) to determine which colonies are raiding on a given day.
The new findings published October 14 in the journal Behavioural Ecology, suggest that bivouac checking allows birds to keep track of multiple army ant colonies, keeping account of which colonies are in periods of high-raiding activity while avoiding colonies with low-raiding activity.
Recent research has discovered that birds check army ant bivouacs at the end of the day, after they have fed at the raid. They may use the information about the army ant nest location the next day to find the ants again, thus accessing a past memory (the nest location) to fulfil a future need (bird will be hungry tomorrow), also known as ‘mental time-travel’…
Mental time-travel consists of two elements: the ability to remember past events and the ability to anticipate and plan for future events. It has traditionally been considered a quality unique to humans. However, ever since Nicola Clayton of the University of Cambridge discovered that scrub jays (a species of large-brained crow) can remember the past and plan for the future, there have been a suite of studies showing evidence of this ability in other species as well. We now know that corvids (birds in the crow family), some primates, and possibly rats have all shown the ability to remember the past and plan for the future.
Corina Logan, said: “We suspect that future planning could be involved in bivouac-checking bird behaviour because the birds were checking bivouacs when they were not hungry, a behaviour that does not make sense until the next morning upon return to the bivouac when the bird finds the ants raiding again and encounters its next meal — a delayed benefit.”
It’s unclear how confident they are that these birds are in fact planning ahead, but I thought this article was interesting anyway as an insight to bird intelligence. Western scrub jays, mentioned in the article, are pretty intelligent, possibly “among the most intelligent of animals”, according to Wikipedia. And they’re always watching you…