Teaching in Wild New Caledonian crows
How did teaching evolve?
Intelligence is like a blackberry plant: a hidden network of roots whose sprouts can pop up in unexpected places when the conditions are right. In evolution, similar forms of intelligence can arise in many types of environments. There is not just one intelligence. Rather, it is manifested in a range of behaviors that vary depending on the animal and the situation. Like those pesky blackberry sprouts, teaching behaviors appeared in just a few animal species widely separated by evolution.
This project hypothesizes that teaching evolves when survival skills are difficult to learn. A good candidate for animal teaching is in nut-dropping by wild New Caledonian crows. Nuts are a major part of their diet, but cracking nuts requires four separate elements of motor skill and knowledge. Nut-dropping is difficult, even for juveniles up to 11 months old. Using a combination of proven field experiments and the novel field methods Mathias Osvath piloted in his first field season, the project will document all possible teaching situations using high-quality, close-range video and audio recordings at all known nut-dropping spots in a group of 12 crows living in a forest of New Caledonia.
This project will contribute key data to further our understanding of the factors that influence the evolution of teaching. Through scientific publications and public events, the results will add a cross-species perspective to the study of human cognitive evolution. Our case study will stimulate the identification of animal teaching in other species, and in turn will widen the scope of research into non-human minds. We will establish the first long-term study site of wild New Caledonian crows, which will aid conservation by raising awareness of animal cognition. It will be the first step towards a planned large-scale project on New Caledonian crow vocal communication, sociality, and intelligence.