New and Exciting in PLoS ONE

There are 19 new articles in PLoS ONE today. As always, you should rate the articles, post notes and comments and send trackbacks when you blog about the papers. You can now also easily place articles on various social services (CiteULike, Mendeley, Connotea, Stumbleupon, Facebook and Digg) with just one click. Here are my own picks for the week - you go and look for your own favourites:

What You See Is What You Get? Exclusion Performances in Ravens and Keas:

Among birds, corvids and parrots are prime candidates for advanced cognitive abilities. Still, hardly anything is known about cognitive similarities and dissimilarities between them. Recently, exclusion has gained increasing interest in comparative cognition. To select the correct option in an exclusion task, one option has to be rejected (or excluded) and the correct option may be inferred, which raises the possibility that causal understanding is involved. However, little is yet known about its evolutionary history, as only few species, and mainly mammals, have been studied. We tested ravens and keas in a choice task requiring the search for food in two differently shaped tubes. We provided the birds with partial information about the content of one of the two tubes and asked whether they could use this information to infer the location of the hidden food and adjust their searching behaviour accordingly. Additionally, this setup allowed us to investigate whether the birds would appreciate the impact of the shape of the tubes on the visibility of food. The keas chose the baited tube more often than the ravens. However, the ravens applied the more efficient strategy, choosing by exclusion more frequently than the keas. An additional experiment confirmed this, indicating that ravens and keas either differ in their cognitive skills or that they apply them differently. To our knowledge, this is the first study to demonstrate that corvids and parrots may perform differently in cognitive tasks, highlighting the potential impact of different selection pressures on the cognitive evolution of these large-brained birds.

Cognitive Processes Associated with Sequential Tool Use in New Caledonian Crows:

Using tools to act on non-food objects--for example, to make other tools--is considered to be a hallmark of human intelligence, and may have been a crucial step in our evolution. One form of this behaviour, 'sequential tool use', has been observed in a number of non-human primates and even in one bird, the New Caledonian crow (Corvus moneduloides). While sequential tool use has often been interpreted as evidence for advanced cognitive abilities, such as planning and analogical reasoning, the behaviour itself can be underpinned by a range of different cognitive mechanisms, which have never been explicitly examined. Here, we present experiments that not only demonstrate new tool-using capabilities in New Caledonian crows, but allow examination of the extent to which crows understand the physical interactions involved. In two experiments, we tested seven captive New Caledonian crows in six tasks requiring the use of up to three different tools in a sequence to retrieve food. Our study incorporated several novel features: (i) we tested crows on a three-tool problem (subjects were required to use a tool to retrieve a second tool, then use the second tool to retrieve a third one, and finally use the third one to reach for food); (ii) we presented tasks of different complexity in random rather than progressive order; (iii) we included a number of control conditions to test whether tool retrieval was goal-directed; and (iv) we manipulated the subjects' pre-testing experience. Five subjects successfully used tools in a sequence (four from their first trial), and four subjects repeatedly solved the three-tool condition. Sequential tool use did not require, but was enhanced by, pre-training on each element in the sequence ('chaining'), an explanation that could not be ruled out in earlier studies. By analyzing tool choice, tool swapping and improvement over time, we show that successful subjects did not use a random probing strategy. However, we find no firm evidence to support previous claims that sequential tool use demonstrates analogical reasoning or human-like planning. While the ability of subjects to use three tools in sequence reveals a competence beyond that observed in any other species, our study also emphasises the importance of parsimony in comparative cognitive science: seemingly intelligent behaviour can be achieved without the involvement of high-level mental faculties, and detailed analyses are necessary before accepting claims for complex cognitive abilities.

Keeping in Touch with One's Self: Multisensory Mechanisms of Self-Consciousness:

The spatial unity between self and body can be disrupted by employing conflicting visual-somatosensory bodily input, thereby bringing neurological observations on bodily self-consciousness under scientific scrutiny. Here we designed a novel paradigm linking the study of bodily self-consciousness to the spatial representation of visuo-tactile stimuli by measuring crossmodal congruency effects (CCEs) for the full body. We measured full body CCEs by attaching four vibrator-light pairs to the trunks (backs) of subjects who viewed their bodies from behind via a camera and a head mounted display (HMD). Subjects made speeded elevation (up/down) judgments of the tactile stimuli while ignoring light stimuli. To modulate self-identification for the seen body subjects were stroked on their backs with a stick and the felt stroking was either synchronous or asynchronous with the stroking that could be seen via the HMD. We found that (1) tactile stimuli were mislocalized towards the seen body (2) CCEs were modulated systematically during visual-somatosensory conflict when subjects viewed their body but not when they viewed a body-sized object, i.e. CCEs were larger during synchronous than during asynchronous stroking of the body and (3) these changes in the mapping of tactile stimuli were induced in the same experimental condition in which predictable changes in bodily self-consciousness occurred. These data reveal that systematic alterations in the mapping of tactile stimuli occur in a full body illusion and thus establish CCE magnitude as an online performance proxy for subjective changes in global bodily self-consciousness.

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