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Homing pigeons share the human capacity to build on the knowledge of others

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Humans and some types of primates have the ability to gather, pass on and improve on knowledge over generations. But a new study suggests that primates might not be the only animals capable of what biologists refer to as cumulative culture. Homing pigeons also build on the experiences of other generations in order to improve their navigation.

A new Oxford study set out to see if there are other animals, except for primates, that are able to display cumulative culture. Takao Sasaki and Dora Biro, Research Associates in the Department of Zoology at Oxford University, used homing pigeons to show the interplay between between Cumulative Cultural Evolution and collective intelligence.

According to the findings, published in Nature Communications, after studying pigeon migration, scientists found that homing pigeons can gradually improve their flight paths, over time by building on the experience of other generations.

“The pairs’ homing performance improved consistently over generations, they streamlined their route to be more direct. Later generation groups eventually outperformed individuals that flew solo or in groups that never changed membership,” the study argues.

The study demonstrated that pigeons are capable of improving on a behavioural solution progressively over time, even though they do not do this by the same means as humans.

“The necessary innovations in each generation come from a form of collective intelligence that arises through pairs of birds having to solve the problem together – in other words through two heads being better than one,” said Dora Biro about the study.

And the study also gave scientists a new and important clue, that cumulative culture is not necessarily linked to complex cognition.

“Although they have different processes, our findings demonstrate that pigeons can accumulate knowledge and progressively improve their performance, satisfying the criteria for cumulative culture. Our results further suggest that cumulative culture does not require sophisticated cognitive abilities as previously thought,” said Takao Sasaki in an article published by Oxford University.

The idea that collective intelligence can become a cumulative process could be observed, according to the researchers, not only in homing pigeons but also in social insects and animals with long-distance migration routes.

John Michaelle

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