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Crows Outperform Primates in New Logic Study


Crows are the cognitive powerhouses of the animal kingdom. Countless studies have dedicated years of research to the many ways that crows demonstrate both problem-solving and learning skills. From recognizing human faces and remembering people who have wronged them, to fashioning tools by bending wires, to solving puzzles with multiple steps, few animals can claim to match the crow’s intellect. Humans, of course, are the real brainiacs of the animal kingdom and as such we tend to measure animal intelligence against our own. Animals with close relationships to humans, like our fellow great apes, tend to outperform other animals when it comes to tests of cognitive ability.

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A new study may challenge this. In a recent study from the University of Tübingen, researchers have found that crows may be able to grasp the concept of recursion. Recursion refers to the concept of meaningful structures embedded within other structures. Recursion is an important concept which allows us to parse grammar and perform a range of cognitive tasks. Sentences like “the mouse that the cat chased ran” would be nonsense without the understanding that “the cat chased” is embedded within “the mouse ran.”

Over the course of the study, which was similar to a 2020 study which measured this type of thinking in human children and primates, the crows were presented with a series of symbols including brackets. The crows were taught to select the brackets in order and as the series became longer and more complex, the crows continued to demonstrate an ability to do so in the correct order. So, in a pattern like “{ [ ( ) ] }” the crows could reliably choose the center parentheses first and work their way outwards. When posed with the same types of sequences, the primates required additional training in order to match the abilities of the human children. The crows, however, chose the correct symbols at roughly the same rate as human children without additional training. This potentially demonstrates an area wherein the cognitive function of a crow is demonstrably stronger than a non-human primate.

This is significant. Recursive logic is an essential function of language and communication as well as computation. With an unexpectedly strong grasp of recursion, crows may have far more complex communication skills than previously thought.

The study does have some skeptics who doubt its findings. Some scientists have pointed out that lab conditions lend themselves to associative learning and that the crows may have devised the answers without grasping the concepts involved. This is plausible, but does not fully explain why crows would perform better than primates. In any case, this study proves that we have only scratched the surface of the bird brain and have much to learn still concerning what these incredible animals can do.

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