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Biology, Psychology

Who do you learn from?

A sulfur crested cockatoo perches on my arm and cocks his head to look at me while I scratch him

Sydney checks me out at the Edmonton Valley Zoo six months after I left

I used to work with a sulfur crested cockatoo named Sydney. He and I had a great relationship, I would take him travelling to schools. We would sit together in an empty classroom at lunch and share some memories and some peapods. When I walked into the room where he lived he would always come over to greet me. And when I went back to visit about six months after leaving my position he remembered me and flew from the arm of the interpreter who was holding him to my arm. We sized each other up for a moment. They are incredibly strong and I wasn’t sure what he was thinking. I had never seen him fly to someone else like that so it seemed like he remembered me, but how did he feel about me leaving. It turned out he was just happy to see me. He lifted his wing so that I could scratch underneath and proceeded to stay with me for the next hour as I walked around the zoo.

But he was a challenge. He learned how to open his travelling enclosure so I had to bring in new ways of keeping the door shut each time we travelled. He also was always testing the interpreters to see if he could get the upper hand. He could with a lot of them, and the result was they couldn’t safely handle him anymore. But he and I stayed strong.

As a result of this experience, I was not surprised to see a new study about Goffin’s cockatoos not only making and using wooden tools, but teaching each other how to make and use them. This, according to the researchers, is the first controlled experimental evidence of social transmission of tool use in any bird species.

Social transmission is the fancy speak way of saying that one individual learns from another. It can occur in different ways, through active teaching or through observation, and it tends to be one of those markers that we use to say how intelligent a species is. So here are a few other examples of social transmission that you may not have realized happen.

Octopuses have shown under experimental conditions observational learning. In one study they consistently chose the same object as the octopus they had observed. In this video you can watch an octopus learn how to get into a container with multiple types of openings by watching another octopus that had experimentally figured out how to get into the container.

The red footed tortoise provides another example. When individuals watched another red footed tortoise solve a task where they had to move around a v shaped barrier to get to the food they were significantly more likely to make it to the food than individuals who did not watch another individual complete the task.

In yet another example, a group of researchers found that archer fish learned how to aim their streams of water in order to knock down prey, an extremely complex three-dimensional task, by watching others do it.

All of these studies differ from my experience with Sydney because we are obviously not the same species. Which makes me want to point out, my cat knows what my name for her is, but I have no idea what she calls me, so which one of us needs to work on our ability to learn?

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About Peyto

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities. Peyto is a reference to Bill Peyto who was an outfitter, trapper, and eventually a park warden in Banff National Park. Peyto Lake and Peyto Glacier are both named after him. He is also a distant relative of mine.

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