Animal minds News

Another smart crow, from Hawaii, distantly related to New Zealand smart crows

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Hawaiian crow using stick/c. Ken Bohn/San Diego Zoo Global

From ScienceDaily:

An international team of scientists and conservation experts has discovered that the critically-endangered Hawaiian crow, or ‘Alalā, is a highly proficient tool user, according to a paper published today in the scientific journal Nature.

The discovery of a second tool-using crow species finally provides leverage for addressing long-standing questions about the evolution of animal tool behaviour. “As crow species go, the ‘Alalā and the New Caledonian crow are only very distantly related. With their last common ancestor living around 11 million years ago, it seems safe to assume that their tool-using skills arose independently,” explains Rutz. “It is striking that both species evolved on remote tropical islands in the Pacific Ocean that lack woodpeckers and ferocious bird predators — perfect conditions, apparently, for smart crows to become accomplished tool users!” Paper. (paywall) – Christian Rutz, Barbara C. Klump, Lisa Komarczyk, Rosanna Leighton, Joshua Kramer, Saskia Wischnewski, Shoko Sugasawa, Michael B. Morrissey, Richard James, James J. H. St Clair, Richard A. Switzer, Bryce M. Masuda. Discovery of species-wide tool use in the Hawaiian crow. Nature, 2016; 537 (7620): 403 DOI: 10.1038/nature19103 More.

Note that the tool-using trait must have arisen independently. There was probably no “tool-using” gene.

A lot in the news about smart crows lately, and no wonder. But notice that … almost all news about tool use (fish as “smart as” primates”, apes entering the Stone Age because they select and shape stones to smash stuff) promotes the idea that the bashers and smashers are either like us or on the way to becoming us.

As so often, without pop Darwinism, there would be no pop science interest.

Why not try to understand animal intelligence for what it is, recognizing what it isn’t?: Animals do not use abstract thought or engage in reasoning, moral or otherwise. The contrived, casuistical claims otherwise testify to wasted academic careers attempting to demonstrate the undemonstrable. That accepted, their methods of solving their own non-abstract problems arre often ingenious but they do not prove anything beyond themselves.

Put another way, the researcher is sitting there recording the animals’ behaviour on his ultra-sophisticated laptop, exclaiming something like “That bird knows how to use a stick to pierce bugs! They’re just like us!” His lifetime culture and training prevent him from noticing obvious differences, despite the fact that he is using one obvious difference to record the data and—more important—that he would have no interest in the data except for those differences.

See also: Fish as smart as primates? Nautilus: Brown suggests that wrasses in particular may be the fishes’ answer to the primates among mammals and the corvids (crows, ravens, magpies, and jays) among birds in having a greater-than-expected number of examples of tool use.


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