Previous observations of a New Caledonian crow (Corvus moneduloides) spontaneously bending wire and using it as a hook [Weir et al. (2002) Science 297:981] have prompted questions about the extent to which these animals ‘understand’ the physical causality involved in how hooks work and how to make them. To approach this issue we examine how the same subject (“Betty”) performed in three experiments with novel material, which needed to be either bent or unbent in order to function to retrieve food. These tasks exclude the possibility of success by repetition of patterns of movement similar to those employed before. Betty quickly developed novel techniques to bend the material, and appropriately modified it on four of five trials when unbending was required. She did not mechanically apply a previously learned set of movements to the new situations, and instead sought new solutions to each problem. However, the details of her behaviour preclude concluding definitely that she understood and planned her actions: in some cases she probed with the unmodified tools before modifying them, or attempted to use the unmodified (unsuitable) end of the tool after modification. Gauging New Caledonian crows’ level of understanding is not yet possible, but the observed behaviour is consistent with a partial understanding of physical tasks at a level that exceeds that previously attained by any other non-human subject, including apes.
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It is also interesting to note that Betty managed to “outwit” the experimenters on several occasions, obtaining the food using techniques that had not been anticipated. While these observations do not necessarily shed light on the questions this study set out to address, they do illustrate the flexible, innovative nature of this individual's approach to solving problems.
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We are grateful to Jackie Chappell, Ben Kenward, Christian Rutz, Lucas Bluff, Jo Wimpenny, and Stephen Barlow, for many discussions about experimental design and interpretation. David Wilson looked after Betty through her life in Oxford with affection and efficiency. Thanks to Charlotte Burn and three anonymous referees for helpful comments on the manuscript. David Palmer and Tony Price helped design and build the experimental room and its entrance-control mechanism. The experiments described here comply with all applicable laws of the United Kingdom, where they were carried out. This work was funded by a scholarship from the Wellcome Trust to AASW and BBSRC grant BB/C517392/1 to AK.
This contribution is part of the special issue “Animal Logics” (Watanabe and Huber 2006).
Electronic supplementary material
Table S1: Trial-by-trial description of Experiment 1. ‘Trial code’ summarises the result of the trial (O = own tool; U = unmodified strip; M = modified strip; f = failure (to get food); s = success). ‘Duration’ is the length of time from first interacting with the apparatus to retrieving food (minutes : seconds). ‘Tool dimensions’ gives the length and width of the tool at the start of the trial (mm).
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Weir, A.A.S., Kacelnik, A. A New Caledonian crow (Corvus moneduloides) creatively re-designs tools by bending or unbending aluminium strips. Anim Cogn 9, 317 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-006-0052-5
- New Caledonian crows
- Tool use
- Tool modification
- Folk physics