Move Over, Ancient Sages: Homing Pigeons Pass Down Knowledge Too

Humans have collaborated to learn new things for many years. We put our heads together and expand on what our ancestors have already learned, making advances with each generation. New research from Oxford University shows we're not the only ones. Researchers have discovered that homing pigeons pass knowledge down through generations, and over time this can help them improve their flight routes.

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New Members Make Each Pair Smarter

The Oxford researchers started with 10 pigeons sent on specific flight routes. Once the pigeons learned where to fly, the researchers gave each one a partner. Then, they started continually switching out one pigeon at a time from the pairs, the way it might be if new generations of pigeons joined the group. Then they had these new pairs continue on the same routes. According to an Oxford news release, "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."

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The pigeons may not have as much brain power as humans or primates, but they still were able to improve their navigational abilities over time. The groups that were switched out to simulate new generations eventually flew more direct routes than the pairs with the same members or than single birds. "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," said co-author Dora Biro in the news release. "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."

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In this diagram, each new color of pigeon represents a new generation.

What This Means

"At one stage scientists thought that only humans had the cognitive capacity to accumulate knowledge as a society," said co-author Takao Sasaki in the news release. "Our study shows that pigeons share these abilities with humans, at least to the extent that they are capable of improving on a behavioural solution progressively over time. Nonetheless, we do not claim that they achieve this through the same processes." The next step? Observing other animals to see if they also work together over time to make improvements. After all, why wouldn't they? The wisdom of the ages is some pretty valuable stuff.

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Written by Haley Otman April 25, 2017

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