Pigeons May Share Human Ability to Build on Work of Others


A team of researchers at the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology has shown that the elements of the capacity of humans to build on the work of others may also be present in homing pigeons (Columba livia).

Single flying pigeon. Image credit: Takao Sasaki.

Single flying pigeon. Image credit: Takao Sasaki.

The ability to gather, pass on and improve on knowledge over generations is known as cumulative culture.

Until now humans and, arguably some other primates, were the only species thought to be capable of it.

“At one stage scientists thought that only humans had the cognitive capacity to accumulate knowledge as a society,” said team member Dr. Takao Sasaki, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow at the Department of Zoology (OxNav Group), the University of Oxford, and first author of a paper reporting the results in the journal Nature Communications.

“Our study shows that pigeons share these abilities with humans, at least to the extent that they are capable of improving on a behavioral solution progressively over time. Nonetheless, we do not claim that they achieve this through the same processes.”

In the study, Dr. Sasaki and his colleague at Oxford, Dr. Dora Biro, tested whether homing pigeons can gradually improve their flight paths, over time.

The researchers removed and replaced individuals in pairs of birds that were given a specific navigational task.

Ten chains of birds were released from the same site and generational succession was simulated with the continuous replacement of birds familiar with the route with inexperienced birds who had never flown the course before.

The idea was that these individuals could then pass their experience of the route down to the next pair generation, and also enable the collective intelligence of the group to continuously improve the route’s efficiency.

The findings suggest that over time, the student does indeed become the teacher.

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.

Homing routes were also found to be more similar in consecutive generations of the same chain of pigeon pairs than across them, showing cross-generational knowledge transfer, or a ‘culture’ of homing routes.

“Our findings demonstrate that pigeons can accumulate knowledge and progressively improve their performance, satisfying the criteria for cumulative culture,” Dr. Sasaki said.

“The results further suggest that cumulative culture does not require sophisticated cognitive abilities as previously thought.”

This study shows that collective intelligence, which typically focuses on one-time performance, can emerge from accumulation of knowledge over time.

“One key novelty, we think, is that the gradual improvement we see is not due to new ideas about how to improve the route being introduced by individual birds,” Dr. Biro said.

“Instead, 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’.”


Takao Sasaki & Dora Biro. 2017. Cumulative culture can emerge from collective intelligence in animal groups. Nature Communications 8, article number: 15049; doi: 10.1038/ncomms15049

This article is based on text provided by the University of Oxford.

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