AsianScientist (May 14, 2011) – Most people who have had the experience of having pet animals in their houses have the gut feeling that the animals can ‘recognize’ us.
Numerous studies have shown that domesticated animals, such as dogs, rabbits, seals and sheep, can recognize humans individually. These animals, though, are exposed to humans and interact with humans every day. But can wild animals recognize people?
Although there are many anecdotes that wild animals do so, experimental evidence is surprisingly scant. Only very recently, Northern mockingbirds and American crows have been shown to recognize humans who threatened their nests or captured them.
Every spring, researchers from Seoul National University (SNU) and Ewha Womans University conduct a routine, annual survey of the breeding success of a black-billed magpie population within the SNU campus.
Something different happened in 2009. One of the crew, Mr. Won Young Lee, a PhD student who was always climbing up the nests and removing eggs or chicks for survey, started to be followed by the owners of the nests which gave him a good “scolding”.
“I remember,” Lee says, “when a magpie came down from a nest tree scolding at me. I was with a second researcher at that time, and I tried to fool the magpie by giving my cap to the other person. But this did not work! When I moved away the bird followed me rather than the fellow observer wearing my cap.”
This did not happen with other birds whose nests Lee did not access. Based on this unexpected finding, the researchers quickly designed a field experiment. A pair of humans, a climber and one non-climber, wearing the same clothing, was presented to magpies to see whether magpies show selective responses to climbers. The result was that all the tested magpies showed aggressive responses to the climbers.
“It was very unusual thing,” says Dr. Sang-im Lee, the leader of the magpie survey team at SNU. “We’ve been doing exactly the same survey every year for more than 15 years but nobody was followed by birds.”
Unlike previous years where the team rotated and took turns climbing, in 2009 only Y.L. Lee climbed up to put cameras into the nets. Hence, repeated presentation of the same human as a threat to the nests could have facilitated the learning process of magpies, and could have led to the recognition of this crew member. Mr. Lee has published this findings in the journal Animal Cognition.
As birds are not that sensitive to smell, it was more likely to be due to facial recognition. Furthermore, both the climber and the non-climber wore the same clothing and walked similarly in the experiment.
The researchers hypothesize that the process does not require a high level of cognitive skills, and is common to a long list of domesticated animals which can recognize individuals.
The researchers call for more species to be tested and for future studies with species of clearly different cognitive abilities tested in a standard manner in two types of habitats: heavily human-populated urban areas and wild natural habitats where exposure to human presence is minimal.
If the researchers are right, then the animals living in urban areas would show higher level of discriminatory skills to humans compared to animals living in rural areas.
Source: Seoul National University.
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