Wanting ahead -- Birds plan for future desires

April 26, 2007

For a long time, it had been argued that only humans can draw on past experiences to plan for the future, whereas animals were considered "stuck in time." However, it has become clear that some animals can indeed plan for future needs. Surprisingly, the most convincing examples of future planning are not derived from our closest relatives, the apes, but from a bird, the Western scrub-jay.

The Western scrub-jay is native to the western United States, and, like squirrels and other food-caching animals, these birds readily store food for the future and recover their caches at a later date. It was already known that the jays can plan ahead and store food in places where they have learned they will be hungry the next morning and where they know the type of food will not be available. But a key issue had remained unresolved--namely, whether the birds can plan ahead in response to a motivation or desire they do not experience in the present. In other words: Can the birds know what they are going to want in the future?

In new research, appearing online on April 26th in the journal Current Biology, published by Cell Press, Sergio Correia, Tony Dickinson, and Nicky Clayton of the University of Cambridge, UK, used a phenomenon called "specific satiety" to address this issue. Like many other animals, when sated of one type of food, Western scrub-jays prefer to eat and store another type of food. Correia and colleagues used this effect to ask whether the birds prefer to store the food they want now or the food they think they will want when they come to recover their caches in the future. At the start of the experiment, the birds stored the food they desired at the time, but the birds switched to storing the food that was valuable at the time of recovery rather than the one they wanted to eat at the time of caching.

These experiments provide the first-ever evidence that animals can plan future actions not only on the basis of what they currently desire, but also on the basis of what they anticipate they will desire in the future. This is another striking example of how animals show features of intelligence that were once thought to be uniquely human.
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The researchers include Sérgio P.C. Correia of the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, UK and Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência in Oeiras, Portugal; Anthony Dickinson and Nicola S. Clayton of the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, UK.

The work was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Grant BB/D00033, and conducted within the United Kingdom Medical Research Council Co-operative Grant G9805862. This work adhered to University of Cambridge policies on animal husbandry and welfare.

Correia et al.: "Western Scrub-Jays Anticipate Future Needs Independently of Their Current Motivational State." Publishing in Current Biology 17, May 15, 2007. www.current-biology.com

Cell Press

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