Crows don't plan intelligence
Most animals are unable to solve problems without planning the action before hand. But the new research shows that certain bird species, such as crows, appear to have sufficient hardware to make these decisions without thinking about them first, providing new insight into the evolution of intelligence. 
Image: Sarah Jelbert/iStockphoto

In certain situations animals can spontaneously solve problems without planning their actions, according to research from The University of Auckland’s School of Psychology.

Animals rarely solve problems spontaneously, yet certain bird species are able to rapidly gain access to food hung on the end of a long string, by repeatedly pulling and then stepping on the string. For over 400 years it has been a mystery as to how the birds spontaneously solve the “string pulling” problem.

The University of Auckland research shows that such problem solving is not created by birds first solving the problem in their heads. Rather, problem solving occurs online as the bird makes the food on the end of the string move.

“Crows and parrots have long been known to solve the string pulling problem immediately. What our new research shows is that these performances are due to the birds being able to react in the moment to the effects of their actions, rather than being able to mentally plan out their actions,” says Dr Alex Taylor, lead author on the study.

“Thus string pulling appears to be based on a different type of intelligence than we had thought. Instead of the crows using sophisticated cognitive software to model the world, it appears their neural hardware is sufficiently well connected and/or specialised for them to react to the effect of their actions immediately. This allows them to solve problems that other bird species cannot.”

The work, by Dr Taylor, Brenna Knaebe and Professor Russell Gray, titled “An end to insight? New Caledonian crows can spontaneously solve problems without planning their actions”, has been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences online.

Editor's Note: Original news release can be found here.