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Bumblebees can learn to pull strings for a reward, pass on skill

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Fig 1 You think bonobos cracking nuts is remarkable? Now, from Elizabeth Pennisi at Science:

Hints of tool use, culture seen in bumble bees

Chittka’s team has shown that bumble bees can not only learn to pull a string to retrieve a reward, but they can also learn this trick from other bees, even though they have no experience with such a task in nature. The study “successfully challenges the notion that ‘big brains’ are necessary” for new skills to spread, says Christian Rutz, an evolutionary ecologist who studies bird cognition at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom.

Many researchers have used string pulling to assess the smarts of animals, particularly birds and apes. So Chittka and his colleagues set up a low clear plastic table barely tall enough to lay three flat artificial blue flowers underneath. Each flower contained a well of sugar water in the center and had a string attached that extended beyond the table’s boundaries. The only way the bumble bee could get the sugar water was to pull the flower out from under the table by tugging on the string. More.

It doesn’t quite qualify as tool use, but is considered “impressive.” Researcher Chittka comments,

the insects might not be all that intelligent, but that instead, “these results may mean that culturelike phenomena might actually be based on relatively simple mechanisms.”

Or, we would suggest, relatively complex mechanisms that do not depend on individual intelligence. If simple mechanisms worked that way, many more insects would be doing things like this all the time. But it took a sophisticated experiment to turn even this one up.

See also: Bonobos can crack nuts with stones: Nothing science story of the year? The story that matters is: Why is animal intelligence not more closely tied to presumed evolutionary development? And why does it never amount to anything like or even approaching human intelligence?

and

Does intelligence depend on a specific type of brain?

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