first_img Sign up for our daily newsletter Get more great content like this delivered right to you! Country By standing on the shoulders of giants, humans have built the sophisticated high-tech world we live in today. Tapping into the knowledge of previous generations—and those around us—was long thought to be a “humans-only” trait. But homing pigeons can also build collective knowledge banks, behavioral biologists have discovered, at least when it comes to finding their way back to the roost. Like humans, the birds work together and pass on information that lets them get better and better at solving problems.“It is a really exciting development in this field,” says Christine Caldwell, a psychologist at the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom who was not involved with the work.Researchers have admired pigeon intelligence for decades. Previous work has shown the birds are capable of everything from symbolic communication to rudimentary math. They also use a wide range of cues to find their way home, including smell, sight, sound, and magnetism. On its own, a pigeon released multiple times from the same place will even modify its navigation over time for a more optimal route home. The birds also learn specific routes from one another. Because flocks of pigeons tend to take more direct flights home than individuals, scientists have long thought some sort of “collective intelligence” is at work.  Country * Afghanistan Aland Islands Albania Algeria Andorra Angola Anguilla Antarctica Antigua and Barbuda Argentina Armenia Aruba Australia Austria Azerbaijan Bahamas Bahrain Bangladesh Barbados Belarus Belgium Belize Benin Bermuda Bhutan Bolivia, Plurinational State of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba Bosnia and Herzegovina Botswana Bouvet Island Brazil British Indian Ocean Territory Brunei Darussalam Bulgaria Burkina Faso Burundi Cambodia Cameroon Canada Cape Verde Cayman Islands Central African Republic Chad Chile China Christmas Island Cocos (Keeling) Islands Colombia Comoros Congo Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Cook Islands Costa Rica Cote d’Ivoire Croatia Cuba Curaçao Cyprus Czech Republic Denmark Djibouti Dominica Dominican Republic Ecuador Egypt El Salvador Equatorial Guinea Eritrea Estonia Ethiopia Falkland Islands (Malvinas) Faroe Islands Fiji Finland France French Guiana French Polynesia French Southern Territories Gabon Gambia Georgia Germany Ghana Gibraltar Greece Greenland Grenada Guadeloupe Guatemala Guernsey Guinea Guinea-Bissau Guyana Haiti Heard Island and McDonald Islands Holy See (Vatican City State) Honduras Hungary Iceland India Indonesia Iran, Islamic Republic of Iraq Ireland Isle of Man Israel Italy Jamaica Japan Jersey Jordan Kazakhstan Kenya Kiribati Korea, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Republic of Kuwait Kyrgyzstan Lao People’s Democratic Republic Latvia Lebanon Lesotho Liberia Libyan Arab Jamahiriya Liechtenstein Lithuania Luxembourg Macao Macedonia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Madagascar Malawi Malaysia Maldives Mali Malta Martinique Mauritania Mauritius Mayotte Mexico Moldova, Republic of Monaco Mongolia Montenegro Montserrat Morocco Mozambique Myanmar Namibia Nauru Nepal Netherlands New Caledonia New Zealand Nicaragua Niger Nigeria Niue Norfolk Island Norway Oman Pakistan Palestine Panama Papua New Guinea Paraguay Peru Philippines Pitcairn Poland Portugal Qatar Reunion Romania Russian Federation Rwanda Saint Barthélemy Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Saint Kitts and Nevis Saint Lucia Saint Martin (French part) Saint Pierre and Miquelon Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Samoa San Marino Sao Tome and Principe Saudi Arabia Senegal Serbia Seychelles Sierra Leone Singapore Sint Maarten (Dutch part) Slovakia Slovenia Solomon Islands Somalia South Africa South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands South Sudan Spain Sri Lanka Sudan Suriname Svalbard and Jan Mayen Swaziland Sweden Switzerland Syrian Arab Republic Taiwan Tajikistan Tanzania, United Republic of Thailand Timor-Leste Togo Tokelau Tonga Trinidad and Tobago Tunisia Turkey Turkmenistan Turks and Caicos Islands Tuvalu Uganda Ukraine United Arab Emirates United Kingdom United States Uruguay Uzbekistan Vanuatu Venezuela, Bolivarian Republic of Vietnam Virgin Islands, British Wallis and Futuna Western Sahara Yemen Zambia Zimbabwe But can pigeons improve this homing ability over generations, building on the knowledge of birds that have come before? The phenomenon, known as cumulative cultural evolution, was considered “arguably unique to humans,” says Dora Biro, a behavioral biologist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.To find out if birds share this ability, Biro and Oxford biologist Takao Sasaki strapped GPS devices on homing pigeons and divided them into three groups: birds homing by themselves, birds flying with the same partner, and birds that switched up their partner every half dozen flights or so.He and Biro based their design on the famous “spaghetti tower” test. In that experiment, one person was asked to build a tower as high as possible using raw spaghetti and clay while an observer looked on. Then, the builder left and the observer was asked to build a tower in front of a new observer. Researchers found that 10 “generations” of observers each built towers similar to the ones before them, but taller, demonstrating the basic idea of standing on the shoulders of giants.Instead of building towers, the pigeons simply had to fly home, an instinctive behavior. Birds in all three groups improved in the first few flights home, but after that, only the group in which the most experienced bird was periodically switched out continued to get closer to the perfect route, the researchers report today in Nature Communications. The new bird in the pair was the equivalent of the observer in the spaghetti tower experiment and represented the “next generation” that learned from and built upon the experienced bird’s knowledge.  “I think the paper convincingly shows that animal groups can show both collective intelligence and cumulative culture,” says Harvard University animal behaviorist Albert Kao, who was not affiliated with the study. A naïve bird does not develop a completely new route, but instead changes an existing route that it acquires from a bird in the previous generation—and that’s a hallmark of cumulative culture, Biro adds.Still, not everyone is convinced. “I like the paper. It is carefully—even beautifully—done, but I think this question of whether animals can and do have cumulative culture is still open,” says Claudio Tennie, a comparative psychologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany who was not involved with the work. He argues that the pigeons are not really learning a new behavior, and thus the birds demonstrate just a subtype of cumulative culture.Maxime Derex, an evolutionary anthropologist at Arizona State University in Tempe, agrees. Cumulative culture is more complex in humans, he says. We’ve gone from the spoken to the written word and now to ever more sophisticated electronics to communicate, he notes, whereas all the birds show is that they can improve their route home.Biro and Sasaki accept this difference between pigeons and humans. “But our study demonstrates that nonhuman animals can accumulate knowledge and improve performance over generations, satisfying the criteria for cumulative cultural evolution,” Sasaki says. “Thus, our results suggest that [this ability] may not require sophisticated cognition as previously thought.” Think only humans can build on the knowledge of previous generations? Meet these pigeons By Elizabeth PennisiApr. 18, 2017 , 5:00 AMcenter_img Homing pigeons, like people, build on each other’s knowledge and take ever more direct routes back to the roost.  Email Takao Sasaki Click to view the privacy policy. Required fields are indicated by an asterisk (*)last_img