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Crows Perform Yet Another Skill Once Thought Distinctively Human

Crows Perform Yet Another Skill Once Thought Distinctively Human
Credit: Jenny Soups/500px/Getty Images

Diana Kwon

Scientists demonstrate that crows are capable of recursion—a key feature in grammar. Not everyone is convinced

Crows are some of the smartest creatures in the animal kingdom. They are capable of making rule-guided decisions and of creating and using tools. They also appear to show an innate sense of what numbers are. Researchers now report that these clever birds are able to understand recursion—the process of embedding structures in other, similar structures—which was long thought to be a uniquely human ability.

Recursion is a key feature of language. It enables us to build elaborate sentences from simple ones. Take the sentence “The mouse the cat chased ran.” Here the clause “the cat chased” is enclosed within the clause “the mouse ran.” For decades, psychologists thought that recursion was a trait of humans alone. Some considered it the key feature that set human language apart from other forms of communication between animals. But questions about that assumption persisted. “There’s always been interest in whether or not nonhuman animals can also grasp recursive sequences,” says Diana Liao, a postdoctoral researcher at the lab of Andreas Nieder, a professor of animal physiology at the University of Tübingen in Germany.

In a study of monkeys and human adults and children published in 2020, a group of researchers reported that the ability to produce recursive sequences may not actually be unique to our species after all. Both humans and monkeys were shown a display with two pairs of bracket symbols that appeared in a random order. The subjects were trained to touch them in the order of a “center-embedded” recursive sequence such as { ( ) } or ( { } ). After giving the right answer, humans received verbal feedback, and monkeys were given a small amount of food or juice as a reward. Afterward the researchers presented their subjects with a completely new set of brackets and observed how often they arranged them in a recursive manner. Two of the three monkeys in the experiment generated recursive sequences more often than nonrecursive sequences such as { ( } ), although they needed an additional training session to do so. One of the animals generated recursive sequences in around half of the trials. Three- to four-year-old children, by comparison, formed recursive sequences in approximately 40 percent of the trials.

This paper prompted Liao and her colleagues to investigate whether crows, with their renowned cognitive skills, might possess the capacity for recursion as well. Adapting the protocol used in the 2020 paper, the team trained two crows to peck pairs of brackets in a center-embedded recursive sequence. The researchers then tested the birds’ ability to spontaneously generate such recursive sequences on a new set of symbols. The crows also performed on par with children. The birds produced the recursive sequences in around 40 percent of trials—but without the extra training that the monkeys required. The results were published today in Science Advances.

The discovery that crows can grasp center-embedded structures and that they are better at doing so than monkeys “is fascinating,” says Giorgio Vallortigara, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Trento in Italy, who was not involved in the work. These findings raise the question of what non-human animals might use this ability for, he adds. “They do not seem to possess anything similar to human language, thus recursion is possibly relevant to other cognitive functions,” he says. One speculation is that animals might use recursion to represent relationships within their social groups.

When the 2020 study on recursive capacities in humans and monkeys was published, some experts remained unconvinced that the monkeys understood recursion. Instead, some argued, the animals chose the recursive sequences by learning the order in which the brackets were displayed. For example, if the training sequence was [ ( ) ], and the monkeys were later shown a different pairing, such as ( ) and { }, they would first pick a bracket they recognized from training, then pick the new bracket pair they had never seen before. Finally, they would pick the matching bracket from the training session at the end of the sequence (because they had learned that the matching bracket comes at the end).

To address this limitation, Liao and her colleagues extended the sequences from two pairs to three pairs—such as { [ ( ) ] }. With three pairs of symbols, the probability of producing the sequences without grasping the underlying concept of recursion becomes much lower, Liao says. Here, too, the researchers found that the birds were most likely to choose center-embedded responses.

Some scientists remain skeptical. Arnaud Rey, a senior researcher in psychology at the French National Center for Scientific Research, says the findings can still be interpreted from a simple associative learning standpoint—in which an animal learns to link one symbol to the next, such as connecting an open bracket with a closed one. A key reason, he explains, lies in a feature of the study design: the researchers placed a border around the closed brackets in their sets—which the authors note was required to help the animals define the order of the brackets. (The same bordered layout was used in the 2020 study.) For Rey, this is a crucial limitation of the study because the animals could have grasped that bordered symbols—which would always end up toward the end of a recursive sequence—were the ones rewarded, thus aiding them in simply learning the order in which open and closed brackets were displayed.

In Rey’s view, the notion of “recursive processing” as a unique form of cognition is in itself flawed. Even in humans, he says, this capacity can most likely be explained simply through associative learning mechanisms—which is something he and his colleagues proposed in a 2012 study of baboons—and to date, there have been no satisfactory explanations of how the ability to recognize and manipulate such sequences would be coded in the human brain. According to Rey, researchers currently fall largely into two camps: one that believes that human language is built on unique capacities such as the ability to understand recursion and another that believes it emerged from much simpler processes such as associative learning.

But Liao notes that even with the help of the borders, the crows still had to figure out the center-embedded order where open and closed brackets were paired from the outside in. In other words, if the birds only learned that open brackets were at the beginning of the sequence and closed ones were at the end, you would expect an equal proportion of ( { ) } mismatched and correct responses. But, she says, her and her colleagues found that the crows chose more of the latter than the former, even with the more complex sequences of three pairs of brackets.

For Liao, seeing that birds whose ancestors long ago diverged from those of primates on the branching evolutionary tree of life—also appear to be able to parse and generate recursive sequences implies that this capacity is “evolutionary ancient” or that it developed independently as a product of what is known as convergent evolution. Because birds’ brain lacks the layered neocortex of primates, this observation, Liao adds, suggests that the latter brain architecture may not be necessary for displaying this cognitive ability.

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For Mathias Osvath, an associate professor of cognitive science at Lund University in Sweden, who was not involved in the new paper, its findings fit into a long line of studies indicating that birds possess many of the same cognitive skills as primates. “To me, this just adds to the catalog of amazing data showing that birds have been completely misunderstood,” Osvath says. “Saying that mammals took over the world cognitively is just simply wrong.”



Diana Kwon is a freelance journalist who covers health and the life sciences. She is based in Berlin. Follow Kwon on Twitter @DianaMKwon Credit: Nick Higgins

Let’s go home and pester the cat after that we can take a nap…

Texas fire dog unlocks door after officials get locked out

Sarah Rumpf

A Texas city’s fire dog saved the day when she opened the fire department’s front door for a first responder who was locked outside.

When an official got locked out of the Public Safety building in Georgetown, Texas, the city’s fire dog, Koda, came to the rescue.

The fire department’s surveillance camera caught the moment on video as the golden retriever excitedly, her tail wagging rapidly, goes to the front door and opens it to the relief of the man stuck outside in the dark.

After opening the door, the first responder greets the dog with lots of attention and love.

Koda is well-loved in the community, and fans can follow her on social media.

Koda can usually be found with her best pal and handler, Deputy Fire Marshal Jonathan Gilliam, educating people about fire safety and prevention.

She is also a registered therapy dog to help even more people in the community.

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A homeowner puzzled as to who was mysteriously tiding up his garden shed late at night and was astonished to find the culprit was a house proud mouse. Questioning his sanity. Stephen Mckears 72 first noticed the object moving in his shed a month ago and asked his neighbor Rodney Holbrook 70 to help him get to the bottom of the mystery. The retired electrician notice plastic clips appearing in an old ice cream tub filled with peanuts which he keeps to feed the birds before more objects began to accumulate. Questioning his sanity, Steven empty the tub each night, scattering the nuts and bolts across the shed, only to discover the mess had been cleaned by the morning. After weeks of finding large screws, plastic leads, nuts and bolts neatly file away, the pair decide to set up a trail camera to uncover the mystery guest.

Fearless dog saves a family seconds before mountain lion attack: ‘She is our hero’


A Labrador retriever named Ella is being hailed a hero after guarding her family from a mountain lion attack in Cedar Hills, Utah.

One Wednesday evening, Crystal Michaelis and her family were unwinding in their backyard when the 7-year-old hunting Labrador started acting protective while standing near the rock wall of the yard.

Initially, the family didn’t think much of Ella’s odd behavior. But when the dog started quickly glancing at the children and nudged one of them to get away, they decided to come inside the house.Pixabay

“She was just being very cautious, and my daughter thought it was very concerning,” Crystal told KSL News.

Once the family was safely inside, an unseen encounter happened between Ella and a mountain lion—also called a cougar or a puma—in the backyard, where the family was relaxing just moments before.

“We opened the back door and found Ella just bloodied. There was blood all over the door and all over the patio,” Crystal recalled of the shocking scene.YouTube

A backyard with a swimming pool and rock wall

“My older son immediately came out well we tried to come out and she wouldn’t even let us come out so she hurry and came in and she kept looking over to the one side of our house, and she came in and she kind of just collapsed,” said Crystal.

“I believe wholeheartedly that she was protecting them because it was within seconds that they came in, and this all happened,” the grateful pet owner told Fox 13 News.

Ella suffered severe cuts on her head, nose, tongue, legs, and neck from her fight with the cougar. She also had a concussion and over 30 bites on her body.

The dog’s vet told Crystal that all of her injuries were from the shoulders up, which means “she never let down and stayed in that protective stance and defend it.”YouTube

A Labrador retriever with severe injuries on its head, nose, and legs after fighting off a mountain lion

After receiving treatment for her injuries after the attack, the hero dog was sent home the following day.

The Pleasant Grove Police Department issued a warning to nearby citizens following news of Ella’s attack.

“According to [Utah Division of Wildlife Resources] officials, the dog that was attacked in Cedar Hills last night was in fact attacked by a mountain lion,” the department wrote on Facebook. “The dog is believed to have been attacked in the yard and not in the foothills.”

“Please be cautious while using the Murdock Canal. If you live in the northern end of Pleasant Grove,” the post continued. “Please be aware of your surroundings and know where small children are at all times. Please consider bringing pets indoors. Be safe out there.”YouTube

A family and a Labrador retriever in a backyard

According to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) officers, it’s not uncommon to have mountain lions in the Cedar Hills area. Although they haven’t found the wild animal that attacked Ella, the authorities found the beast’s tracks in the yard where the fight occurred.

There are also goats in a nearby yard, and it’s possible that the cougar was after them.

“They’ve also seen deer wandering through this area and since deer are kind of the main food source for cougars, they will often follow where deer go,” said Faith Jolley, a DWR public information officer.

Ella’s family is eternally grateful to the brave dog for defending them with all her might.YouTube

A Labrador retriever lying on the grass

“Definitely. She can’t be replaced. That’s for sure,” Crystal said. “She is our hero.”

Pumas can be found throughout Utah, usually in foothill and canyon areas and at times in valleys, according to the Utah wildlife program, “Wild Aware Utah.”

The program website advises readers to remove wildlife attractants from properties, including pet food and water sources, to prevent incidents with cougars. It states that children shouldn’t be left outside unattended, especially at dawn and dusk. Pets and livestock must also be brought inside at night or secured in a barn or kennel with a top.

Good job, Ella! We hope you are recovering well at home. Watch the video below to learn more about this dog’s heroic deed.

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A couple woke up to find a dog snuggled in bed with them and it was not theirs

Julie Thornton Johnson and Jimmy Johnson

In the early morning of May 1, a southeastern Tennessee couple named Julie Thornton Johnson and Jimmy Johnson woke up to find a fluffy intruder sleeping in bed with them.

Julie got up around 4:00 a.m. and noticed a dog was in their bed, but she didn’t think anything of it because their three hounds—Jupiter, Hollis, and Zeppelin—like sleeping on the bed. So, she went back to sleep.

But as the light shone through their window at around 6:30 a.m., Jimmy woke up to a start.

“Julie, whose dog is this?” he asked in a quiet but stern voice.

Julie rolled over and looked at her husband—both of them having just realized that the red nose pitbull-labrador mix sandwiched between them wasn’t theirs.

Julie Johnson and Nala on the bed


Initially, Julie feared someone else had broken into the house, but she soon realized that the pup was just looking for refuge.

“We knew that she was of absolute no harm to us or our dogs,” she said. “She was just looking for a safe place. So, it totally turned into a comical, ‘Let’s take some photos with Nala.’”

The couple snapped a couple of photos of their hilarious situation, and Julie shared the story on Facebook.

“This is the weirdest post I have ever had to make,” she wrote in the caption. “Is this your dog?”

Nala the dog on the Johnsons' bed


The pup wasn’t wearing a collar, so the Johnsons didn’t know her name. But within an hour of posting, Julie received a message from someone who claimed Nala was their dog.

Wanting to make sure it was the right person, Julie asked if she could prove she was the owner. The woman then sent Christmas and Easter pictures and plenty of photos with Nala.

Nala’s owners, Felecia Johnson and Cris Hawkins, said that the dog had slipped out of her collar the night before while Felecia’s dad took her for a walk.

Nala ran into the woods, and he tried to get her, but the dog decided to play a game of tag. Later that night, the pup returned home but refused to come back inside, so Felecia and Cris decided to wait until the morning, thinking she would stay close.

Felecia Johnson and Nala


But as it turns out, Nala went on an adventure of her own.

How she snuck into the couple’s home still remains unclear, but Julie suspects that Nala might have just pushed a door open while looking for a place to stay during the thunderstorm that night. Jimmy had taken their three dogs outside before bed, and she thinks the front door was left slightly ajar.

Felecia came to pick up Nala, but it took a while before the dog was convinced to go home.

Jimmy Johnson, Julie Johnson, Felecia Johnson, and Cris Hawkins with their dogs


“She’s almost as big as I am, but since she’s been a puppy, I carry her on my hip like she’s a little kid,” she said. “And now that she’s grown, she’s still expects me to do that. It’s a lot harder now, but I had to carry this big dog out of (Julie and Jimmy’s) house. If it wasn’t crazy enough. … I had to carry her out like a child.”

A few days after Nala’s impromptu sleepover, the families went on a fun puppy play date in Julie and Jimmy’s yard with all four dogs, who enjoyed some vanilla ice cream and treats.

“The four of us could not even believe the attention this story has gotten and how one dog has brought the four of us together,” Julie said. “The eight of us, actually — four humans and four dogs — into, I hope, a friendship.”

Check out the video below from CBS News for more on this adorable story.

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