Animal Cognition

, Volume 9, Issue 4, pp 295–305 | Cite as

Technical intelligence in animals: the kea model

  • Ludwig HuberEmail author
  • Gyula K. Gajdon


The ability to act on information flexibly is one of the cornerstones of intelligent behavior. As particularly informative example, tool-oriented behavior has been investigated to determine to which extent nonhuman animals understand means–end relations, object affordances, and have specific motor skills. Even planning with foresight, goal-directed problem solving and immediate causal inference have been a focus of research. However, these cognitive abilities may not be restricted to tool-using animals but may be found also in animals that show high levels of curiosity, object exploration and manipulation, and extractive foraging behavior. The kea, a New Zealand parrot, is a particularly good example. We here review findings from laboratory experiments and field observations of keas revealing surprising cognitive capacities in the physical domain. In an experiment with captive keas, the success rate of individuals that were allowed to observe a trained conspecific was significantly higher than that of naive control subjects due to their acquisition of some functional understanding of the task through observation. In a further experiment using the string-pulling task, a well-probed test for means–end comprehension, we found the keas finding an immediate solution that could not be improved upon in nine further trials. We interpreted their performance as insightful in the sense of being sensitive of the relevant functional properties of the task and thereby producing a new adaptive response without trial-and-error learning. Together, these findings contribute to the ongoing debate on the distribution of higher cognitive skills in the animal kingdom by showing high levels of sensorimotor intelligence in animals that do not use tools. In conclusion, we suggest that the ‘Technical intelligence hypothesis’ (Byrne, Machiavellian intelligence II: extensions and evaluations, pp 289–211, 1997), which has been proposed to explain the origin of the ape/monkey grade-shift in intelligence by a selection pressure upon an increased efficiency in foraging behavior, should be extended, that is, applied to some birds as well.


Technical intelligence Sensorimotor Development Social learning Causal reasoning Insight 



We are grateful for the assistance and support of the Department of Conservation of New Zealand. Financial support came from the Austrian Science Fund (BIO P15027). We thank two anonymous referees for valuable comments on an earlier draft of the paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department for BehaviorNeurobiology and Cognition, University of ViennaViennaAustria
  2. 2.Konrad Lorenz Institute for EthologyAustrian Academy of SciencesViennaAustria

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