Homing pigeons more like humans than first thought

Roger - a pigeon

Homing pigeons may share the human capacity to build on the knowledge of others by being able to improve their navigational efficiency over time, an Oxford University study has found.

Until now humans were the only species thought to be capable of gathering, passing on and improving on knowledge over generations, known as cumulative culture.

But a study conducted by researchers at Oxford University, proved otherwise by testing whether homing pigeons can gradually improve their flight paths over time.

Scientists released 10 chains of birds with varying levels of knowledge of the route so inexperienced and experienced birds could fly together.

The idea was that the individual pigeons could then pass their experience of the route down to the more inexperienced bird, which helped the group to continuously improve the route’s efficiency.

The findings, published in Nature Communications, suggest that over time the student does indeed become the teacher.

According to co-authors Takao Sasaki and Dora Biro, the pairs’ homing performance improved consistently over generations by streamlining their route to be more direct.

Mr Sasaki, also a research fellow in the department of zoology, said: “At one stage scientists thought that only humans had the cognitive capacity to accumulate knowledge as a society.

“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.”

He added: “Although they have different processes, our findings demonstrate that pigeons can accumulate knowledge and progressively improve their performance, satisfying the criteria for cumulative culture.

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

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