African grey parrots spontaneously 'lend a wing'

January 09, 2020

People and other great apes are known for their willingness to help others in need, even strangers. Now, researchers reporting in Current Biology on January 9 have shown for the first time that some birds--and specifically African grey parrots--are similarly helpful.

"We found that African grey parrots voluntarily and spontaneously help familiar parrots to achieve a goal, without obvious immediate benefit to themselves," says study co-author Désirée Brucks of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany.

Parrots and crows are known for having large brains relative to the size of their bodies and problem-solving skills to match. For that reason, they are sometimes considered to be "feathered apes," explain Brucks and study co-author Auguste von Bayern.

However, earlier studies showed that, despite their impressive social intelligence, crows don't help other crows. In their new study, Brucks and von Bayern wondered: what about parrots?

To find out, they enlisted several African grey parrots and blue-headed macaws. Both parrot species were eager to trade tokens with an experimenter for a nut treat. But, their findings show, only the African grey parrots were willing to transfer a token to a neighbor parrot, allowing the other individual to earn a nut reward.

"Remarkably, African grey parrots were intrinsically motivated to help others, even if the other individual was not their friend, so they behaved very 'prosocially,'" von Bayern says. "It surprised us that 7 out of 8 African grey parrots provided their partner with tokens spontaneously--in their very first trial--thus without having experienced the social setting of this task before and without knowing that they would be tested in the other role later on. Therefore, the parrots provided help without gaining any immediate benefits and seemingly without expecting reciprocation in return."

Importantly, she notes, the African grey parrots appeared to understand when their help was needed. When they could see the other parrot had an opportunity for exchange, they'd pass a token over. Otherwise, they wouldn't.

The parrots would help out whether the other individual was their "friend" or not, she adds. But, their relationship to the other individual did have some influence. When the parrot in need of help was a "friend," the helper transferred even more tokens.

The researchers suggest the difference between African greys and blue-headed macaws may relate to differences in their social organization in the wild. Despite those species differences, the findings show that helping behavior is not limited to humans and great apes but evolved independently also in birds.

It remains to be seen how widespread helping is across the 393 different parrot species and what factors may have led to its evolution. The researchers say that further studies are required to investigate the underlying mechanisms of the parrots' helping behavior. For instance, how do parrots tell when one of their peers needs help? And, what motivates them to respond?
-end-
Current Biology, Brucks & von Bayern: Parrots voluntarily help each other to obtain food rewards https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(19)31469-1

Current Biology (@CurrentBiology), published by Cell Press, is a bimonthly journal that features papers across all areas of biology. Current Biology strives to foster communication across fields of biology, both by publishing important findings of general interest and through highly accessible front matter for non-specialists. Visit: http://www.cell.com/current-biology. To receive Cell Press media alerts, contact press@cell.com.

Cell Press

Related Great Apes Articles from Brightsurf:

Evolution of the Y chromosome in great apes deciphered
New analysis of the DNA sequence of the male-specific Y chromosomes from all living species of the great ape family helps to clarify our understanding of how this enigmatic chromosome evolved.

Dolphins learn in similar ways to great apes
Dolphins learn new foraging techniques not just from their mothers, but also from their peers, a study by the University of Zurich has found.

The great unconformity
The geologic record is exactly that: a record. The strata of rock tell scientists about past environments, much like pages in an encyclopedia.

Apes' inner ears could hide clues to evolutionary history of hominoids
Studying the inner ear of apes and humans could uncover new information on our species' evolutionary relationships, suggests a new study published today in eLife.

Koalas climb like apes but bound on the ground like marsupials
Many marsupials have made a life in the trees, but koalas have evolved the grasping hand and long limbs reminiscent of primates, so Christofer Clemente from the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia, wondered whether koalas move like other marsupials or primates.

Fossil suggests apes, old world monkeys moved in opposite directions from shared ancestor
In terms of their body plan, Old World monkeys -- a group that includes primates like baboons and macaques -- are generally considered more similar to ancestral species than apes are.

How human brain development diverged from great apes
Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, Institute of Molecular and Clinical Ophthalmology Basel, and ETH Zurich, Switzerland, present new insights into the development of the human brain and differences in this process compared to other great apes.

A secret in saliva: Food and germs helped humans evolve into unique member of great apes
University at Buffalo researchers discovered that the human diet -- a result of increased meat consumption, cooking and agriculture -- has led to stark differences in the saliva of humans compared to that of other primates.

Great apes have you on their mind
For decades a fierce debate was raised on whether any nonhuman species possess the ability of 'Theory of Mind'.

Flies may also spread disease among monkeys and apes
People the world over have a good sense that we do not want flies landing on our food.

Read More: Great Apes News and Great Apes Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.