Newly-hatched ducklings are known for “imprinting,” or latching on to the first thing they see as their mother. That way they know who to follow and who will protect them. Imprinting is considered to be instinct, and ducklings have been known to imprint on animals and even objects that are not their mother. A recent experiment hijacked the imprinting period to determine how intelligent ducklings are, as in whether they can distinguish the abstract concepts of “same” and “different.”
To explore how ducks think, researchers exposed newborn ducklings to a variety of objects, showing them pairs that were either the same or different, in characteristics like shape or color. Later, when shown completely different objects, three-fourths of the ducks got up and followed the pair that had the same relation they'd originally seen—whether it was one of color or shape, sameness or difference—parading after them the same way they'd line up and follow Mrs. Mallard.
For example, newborn mallards who were first exposed to two spheres (same), later chose to follow a pair or triangles (same) rather than a cube and a cuboid (different). “We hatch them, we give them about 12 hours to dry off, and once they able to walk they are able to do this and learn it with great accuracy,” says Antone Martinho a cognitive scientist at the University of Oxford and co-author of the new study.
This kind of relational matching behavior has been observed in certain primates, like monkeys and apes (and of course humans), and a few other birds, like parrots and crows. But again, these animals are all generally considered to be far more intelligent than ducks.
This experiment brings up a few thoughts. 1. Who is going to care for those experimental ducklings and show them how to duck? B. If newborn ducklings can distinguish same from different, maybe that concept isn’t really “abstract thought.” 3. Could this have been an ancient observation that led to the story of The Ugly Duckling? After all, the ducklings were aware of how different the cygnet was. Read more about the duckling experiment at Smithsonian.
(Image credit: Alexey Gomankov)