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North Island Robin (male)
Credit: Maurice Weststrate on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

I read a fascinating article today by Michael Balter in Science AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) called An IQ test for animals? In it, he explained the challenges of carrying out such tests on wild animals.

Besides not being able to explain a test to a wild creature, there's the underlying problem of motivation and willingness to perform a task. The reward of food has always been one of the most successful ways to motivate any animal (human or non-human).

But what if an animal isn't hungry? Or doesn't fancy the treat offered as much as another member of its species? I think I'd work a little harder (cognitively) if I was offered a brownie over a serving of spinach. For others, the reverse might be true.

Yet it appears that Dr. Rachael Shaw, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the School of Biological Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand has figured out when food might be a factor.

Robins Were Weighed Before and After Eating a Worm

North Island RobinRichard Ashurst on flickr / CC-by-2.0In an attempt to be sure robins were hungry enough to perform (or be motivated by hunger), the researchers weighed the birds prior to and after consuming a worm – both before and after each test.

Six tests were carried out on 20 male robins that reside in the Zealandia Sanctuary (a groundbreaking restoration project near central Wellington).

When I read the report from Radio New Zealand National by Alison Ballance called Bird Brains - Measuring the IQ of Bush Robins, I found out that Dr. Shaw's research is part of a 3-year study.

As stated in the details about Rutherford Foundation awardees and awards (2013 New Zealand Postdoctoral Fellowship Awardees), Dr Shaw explains:

"For intelligence to evolve by natural selection, individual differences in cognitive ability must be associated with differences in reproductive success."

"Monitoring the breeding attempts of the robins that have participated in the cognition experiments will allow the relationship between cognitive ability and reproductive success to be evaluated."

Her research will most likely help develop a method and model system to study "the evolution of intelligence in the wild."

The Birds Studied: North Island Robins (Petroica longipes)

Also Known as the Bush Robin, New Zealand Robin, and Toutouwai

New Zealand North Island Robin (Petroica longipes)
Credit: I, Tony Wills [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

About The IQ Tests Carried Out on Robins

Here is an overview of five tests that were carried out by Dr. Shaw and her research team:

1) Robins were to flip a small lid to get their food reward.

2) A colour association test was conducted where a certain colour was associated with a food reward.

3) A reverse colour association test where robins' "learning flexiblity" was tested since the food reward was placed under a different coloured lid than before.

4) A symbol association test in which a certain shape (square or cross) was paired with a food reward. The researchers measured how long it took for a bird to make this connection; an indication of "learning speed."

As you may have guessed, having a 50 percent chance of being correct (purely by chance) would need to be accounted for. And I was impressed to learn that Dr. Shaw required the robins to "flip the correct lid 10 times out of 12 trials before she is sure it has learnt the task." (The location of the lids and food rewards were shifted since birds have good spatial memory).

5) Spatial memory was tested by whether the robins remembered which (out of eight "wells") contained a tasty worm.

North Island Robin (Petroica longipes) Preening

New Zealand North Island Robin (Petroica longipes) cleaning its feathers
Credit: I, Tony Wills [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Can Studying 20 Male Robins Provide Reliable Results?

As I mentioned in my post last week, a small sample size (of 20 subjects) is probably too small to draw any concrete conclusions from. And yet, when Dr. Shaw and her researchers ran their results through 'principal components analysis' (which tested their results against 10,000 random simulations), they were deemed "statistically significant."

Sure, I'm still skeptical. I mean, what if some of these male robins would've been more motivated to perform if female robin was present? Perhaps a few of these male robins were "sick of worms" and would've upped their game if a lady robin was around?

I often think we try to simplify intelligence down to one instinct. And we animals have other drives. Of course, food is one of them. But there are also the reflexive instincts to fight, flee, or find a mate.

I could be opening up a can of worms (pun intended) to state that one of the strategies of male birds might be to wait until other males are busy eating to search for a mate.

A Female North Island Robin

North Island Robin (female)
Credit: Maurice Weststrate / Taken on February 27th, 2015 / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

The Results, So Far

North Island Robin (male)Maurice Weststrate on flickr / CC-by-2.0In the ScienceDirect journal online report titled Wild psychometrics: evidence for ‘general’ cognitive performance in wild New Zealand robins, Petroica longipes, the following conclusions were drawn:

  • Robins varied greatly in their cognitive performance in the six test battery tasks.
  • A general cognitive factor, analogous to humans, underpinned task performance.

To explain the correlation further: in humans, cognitive ability has been extensively studied and yields a 'general intelligence factor' of at least 40 percent. 

To her credit, Dr. Shaw and her research team noted that "cognitive performance in birds remains in its infancy."

Their six tests measured the cognitive performance of robins in these areas: motor skills, colour and shape discrimination, reversal learning, spatial memory, and inhibitory control. [I was only able to find information about five tests].

And although "robins varied greatly in their ability to solve these tasks," Dr. Shaw and her team found "weakly positive, nonsignificant correlations between most tasks."

Their results "explained over 34% of the variance in cognitive performance" which suggests that a general cognitive factor exists (perhaps similar to that in humans) in wild North Island robins who were tested in their natural habitat. 

Michael Balter mentioned in his article:

Dr. Shaw and her team determined that between 34 percent and 45 percent of the differences in the robins’ overall performances could be explained by a similar general intelligence factor. This suggested that the birds' performance is not just due to their talent on specific tests, but to their overall level of intelligence.

Dr. Alex Thornton, an animal cognition researcher at the University of Exeter in the UK. Dr. Thornton cautioned that "some of the tests could be measuring overlapping cognitive skills rather than separate ones." If this is the case, he added, "the extent to which the study really captures something analogous to general intelligence in humans is somewhat questionable."

Still, it's exciting to find results that point to the evolution of general intelligence shared (or similar) among animals and humans. Dr. Shaw concluded that this "could be more widespread than we currently realize."

Dr. Shaw is also following the nesting success of these study robins to track if there is any correlation between the birds' intelligence and breeding. She is asking residents around Zealandia to report robins with green-metal leg bands. It will be interesting to read the results of chicks that are tested. I wonder if "smart parents produce smart chicks?"

More accurately: does having a smart male bird parent produce a smarter chick? I would imagine the general intelligence of the female bird would play a huge part (and the health of her eggs) in this equation. My sense is that this research is just the tip of the iceberg. (And I can think of numerous human examples that seem to defy these suggested correlations).

This North Island Robin is Sporting 80's Fluro Bangles

North Island Robin
Credit: Richard Ashurst on flickr / Taken on April 21st, 2012 / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
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