Animal Cognition

, Volume 13, Issue 2, pp 207–218 | Cite as

Representational insight in pigeons: comparing subjects with and without real-life experience

  • Ulrike Aust
  • Ludwig Huber
Original Paper


Understanding the relation between objects and their pictures at a level beyond mere feature discrimination is by no means a trivial cognitive ability, and support of this is still weak in nonhuman species. Here, we report evidence of representational insight in pigeons. Responding to pictures of human body parts was compared in birds that had extensive pre-experience with live humans and in birds that had never seen any human heads. In a two-alternative forced-choice procedure the pigeons were trained to discriminate between pictures of either handless or headless humans and nonhumans. On test, the birds had to choose (i) between body parts they had already seen in training and the parts that had been missing, (ii) between previously seen parts and arbitrary skin patches, and (iii) between previously missing parts and skin patches. Only the pigeons that lacked experience with real heads and were trained with pictures of headless humans failed to show a significant preference for pictures of missing parts (i.e., heads) over arbitrary skin patches. This demonstrates the importance of individual experience with the real 3D-referents of pictures for classification of the latter and is thereby evidence of representational insight.


Picture–object recognition Representational insight Visual experience Pigeons 



The research was supported by the Austrian Science Foundation through Grant V3-B03 to Ulrike Aust and Grant P19574-B03 to Ludwig Huber. Thanks are due to Michael Steurer for developing all necessary computer software and for servicing the technical equipment, and to Johanna Kramer and Katharina Kramer for their assistance in the pigeon laboratory. Finally, we wish to thank Anna Wilkinson and Michael Steurer for valuable comments and discussion.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Neurobiology and Cognition ResearchUniversity of ViennaViennaAustria

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