Corvus intelligence

Doing a lot of background reading on animal ecology, I found this review paper:

Recent work on birds and non-human primates has shown that taxonomic differences in field measures of innovation, tool use and social learning are associated with size of the mammalian cortex and avian mesopallium and nidopallium, as well as ecological traits like colonization success. Here, I review this literature and suggest that many of its findings are relevant to hominin intelligence. In particular, our large brains and increased intelligence may be partly independent of our ape phylogeny and the result of convergent processes similar to those that have molded avian and platyrrhine intelligence. Tool use, innovativeness and cultural transmission might be linked over our past and in our brains as operations of domain-general intelligence. Finally, colonization of new areas may have accompanied increases in both brain size and innovativeness in hominins as they have in other mammals and in birds, potentially accelerating hominin evolution via behavioral drive.

Neuroscientists and paleoanthropologists use very different approaches to study the relationship between intelligence and the brain. While neuroscientists study variance between contemporary individuals and species, drawing on techniques like brain imaging, intelligence tests and comparative analyses, paleoanthropologists focus mostly on variation over time and space in fossils and artifacts, in particular tools. This emphasis gives paleoanthropologists a unique insight into three key features of human intelligence: innovation, the first appearance of a novel technique or behavior, tool use and manufacture, and cultural transmission, the diffusion of innovations over space and time.

Studies of tools, innovations and cultural transmission in relation to avian and non-human primate brains have become more numerous in recent years. In this chapter, I review these studies and argue they are relevant to the neuroscience of hominin1 evolution. More specifically, the studies suggest that (1) large brains and increased intelligence in hominins may be partly independent of our ape phylogeny: convergence with avian and platyrrhine cognition, not just ape cognition, may be relevant to understanding our own; (2) tool use, innovativeness and cultural transmission might be linked over our past and (3) in our brains; (4) colonization of new areas may have accompanied increases in both brain size and innovativeness in hominins as they have in other mammals and in birds, potentially accelerating hominin evolution via behavioral drive.

Of course, there are no mentions of any of the people who applied the same kinds of ideas to humans. However, the literature is very informative in getting us to get our priors straight about what to expect for the post-out of Africa human divergence in brain size, cognitive ability, innovation rate etc. Furthermore, there are too few human populations around and they have moved around too much to apply multivariate methods to the data and obtain precise estimates. This is not the case for animals, in which one can find huge datasets of thousands of species enabling powerful multivariate methods.

Of particular interest, however, was this bit:

In birds, the distribution of innovations is also skewed toward some taxa. The families Corvidae, Accipitridae and Laridae rank at the top with over 200 innovations each, but none dominates the way great apes do in primates (Lefebvre et al., 1997; Overington et al., 2009). In birds, the ten genera with the highest innovation frequencies make up only 30% of the more than 2300 cases recorded. The taxonomic distribution of innovation rate is a bit more skewed at higher levels, but again less so than in primates. At four standard deviations above the avian mean, the Corvoidea superfamily (crows, shrikes, magpies, drongos, jays) is the clear outlier in birds when innovation rate is expressed as a residual of research effort, but even then, its innovation frequency represents only 15% of the avian total. Within this parvorder, the genus Corvus (ravens and crows) is an outlier at over eight standard deviations above the avian mean, by far the highest of all genera.

If one searches, one can a find some very interesting videos on Covus, usually crow, intelligence.

TED talks

Experimental footage

Natural observations

Fun stuff!

Entire documentaries

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