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Birds found to plan for the future

21 February 2007

Planning and worrying about the future has always been considered an exclusively human activity, but now at least one species of bird has also been found to plan for tomorrow. The finding also raises the intriguing possibility that, like humans, birds may get anxious about the future. Research published today (22 February) in the journal Nature shows that western scrub-jays are able to plan for future food shortages by caching food. The birds are shown to have learned from their previous experiences of food scarcity, storing food for future use in places where they anticipate future slim pickings. The researchers at the University of Cambridge believe this is the first known example of future planning in animals.

On alternate mornings eight jays were given breakfast in one compartment or refused breakfast in another, before being allowed free access to food the rest of the day. On the sixth day of the experiment they were suddenly given whole pine nuts suitable for caching in the evening. The researchers observed that the jays consistently cached most pine nuts in the tray in the ‘no breakfast’ compartment, anticipating that they would not be fed in the following morning in that compartment.

Another experiment showed that the birds were able to plan ahead to provide themselves with a more varied diet. The jays were consistently given a breakfast of peanuts in one compartment and dog kibble in the other. When the birds in the evening were offered both foods, they preferred to cache peanuts in the kibble compartment and vice versa – to make sure they had an interesting breakfast the following morning.

“The jays spontaneously plan for tomorrow, without being motivated by their current needs”, said Nicola Clayton, Professor of Comparative Cognition at the University of Cambridge. “People have assumed that animals only have a concept of the present, but these findings show that jays also have some understanding of future events and can plan for future eventualities. The western scrub-jays demonstrate behaviour that shows they are concerned both about guarding against food shortages and maximising the variety of their diets. It suggests they have advanced and complex thought processes as they have a sophisticated concept of past, present and future and factor this into their planning.”

Previous research by Clayton’s team has shown that scrub-jays have a concept of the past. They remember what they have cached where and how long ago, and they also keep track of which particular bird was watching when they cached so that they can protect their caches accordingly from being stolen by observant thieves.

The research, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), marks a step forward in our understanding of animal psychology and cognition. This project was also supported with a Medical Research Council (MRC) Cooperative Grant.

ENDS

Notes to editors

The paper “Planning for the future by western scrub-jays” is published in the February 22 issue of Nature.

The Western scrub-jay is a native bird of North America and is similar to the jays native to the UK.

For a number of decades animal cognition research focused on attempting to teach animals human characteristics, however research as this highlights the shift of emphasis to observing animals’ natural behaviour and designing experiments to test specific hypotheses.

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

About MRC

The Medical Research Council is dedicated to improving human health through excellent science. It invests on behalf of the UK taxpayer. Its work ranges from molecular level science to public health research, carried out in universities, hospitals and a network of its own units and institutes. The MRC liaises with the Health Departments, the National Health Service and industry to take account of the public’s needs. The results have led to some of the most significant discoveries in medical science and benefited the health and wealth of millions of people in the UK and around the world.  http://www.mrc.ac.uk

Images

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Western scrub-jay: experiments at the University of Cambridge show the birds are able to plan for future food shortages by caching food. Researchers believe this is the first example of future planning in animals other than humans.

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External contact

Professor Nicola Clayton, University of Cambridge

tel: 01223 741807 (am) 01223 333559 (pm)

Genevieve Maul, Press Office, University of Cambridge

tel: 01223 332300

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