As was noted with irony a few days ago, many psychologists feel obligated to describe the abilities that make humans unique. Perhaps this trait itself is part of human nature: we’re constantly seeking to justify our actions — many of which harm other organisms.
When we learn that an animal can, for example, recognize itself in a mirror, we begin to wonder if we’re really so different from the other animals; whether our dominance over the world is really merited. The latest study covering such ground involves the scrub jay, a remarkable bird which hides its food in thousands of caches, remembering where they are and tracking whether each cache has been discovered by a rival bird.
Researchers have now identified another humanlike behavior in the scrub jay: planning for the future. Neurophilosopher has the details:
During their training, the birds were confined to one of the side compartments in the mornings, after not eating during the night. In the ‘breakfast’ room, they were given powdered pine nuts, which they could not store, whereas in the ‘no breakfast’ room they were given no food. Over a period of 8 days, the birds’ confinement alternated between these two rooms. After training, they were unexpectedly presented, in the evening, with whole instead of powdered pine nuts in the central room. It was found that the birds collected the nuts and stored them in sand-filled trays in the side compartments. The jays cached the nuts in the ‘no breakfast’ room far more frequently than in the ‘breakfast’ room, in anticipation of being confined there without food the next morning.
In a second study, a different food was provided in each room, with no “no food” option. The jays cached each type of food in the other room, apparently anticipating the need for a variety of foods.
The implication is that these birds aren’t simply caching food due to instinct, but are actually imagining a foodless future. Humans, it appears, aren’t the only creatures with such abilities; some (but not all) birds have them too!
Some people don’t eat meat at all because they are concerned about the moral implications of killing another sentient being. Some people draw the line at the mammal/non-mammal boundary. Most of us won’t eat primates or dolphins. Of course, all such lines are arbitrary, but research such as this study does demonstrate that there is amazing variety of mental ability even in animals that are only distantly related to humans: just one more thing to think about next time you’re trying to decide between the smoked salmon and braised duck.