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Raven Politics: Understanding and Use of Social Relationships

funded by: FWF: START (2008-2013)


Project leader: Dr. Thomas Bugnyar

Social life has been suggested as one of the main driving forces for the development of higher cognitive abilities in non-human, and human, primates. Yet there are open questions concerning the mechanisms underlying ‘intelligent’ behaviour and the socio-ecological conditions that promote investment in cognitive skills. Recently, the idea of the bird family Corvidae representing a mirror group to the primates in respect to cognitive capacities has gained momentum.

Understanding the social life of corvids may thus be critical in our attempt to understand primate cognition, since comparison between these groups may offer the unique opportunity to identify which cognitive abilities are common to social living irrespective of phylogeny and how selection has acted to produce these solutions. The intend in this proposal is therefore to investigate social complexity as driving force for brain evolution in corvids and to provide a comprehensive study on the use of social knowledge in an avian model system, the common raven Corvus corax.

Ravens show striking abilities in judging and manipulating competitors but also engage in referential communication, social learning, and various forms of cooperation on the basis of social relationships. This makes them promising candidates to examine their ‘political’ skills from a Machiavellian and a Vygotskian point of view. Hence, this proposal aims at testing what ravens know about other individuals and their social relations and how they make use of their knowledge in daily life. Studies shall follow two parallel lines of research, building blocks (i) on individual recognition and understanding of dyadic and triadic relations and (ii) on the formation, regulation, and use of valuable relations under fission-fusion dynamics.

Furthermore, studies shall feature a combination of laboratory and field work by utilizing our unique captive colony of hand-raised adult birds, their yearly offspring that will be observed first in captivity and then in the field, and habituated wild birds. Finally, studies shall be conducted in collaboration with leading experts in primatology, experimental psychology and behavioural biology, enabling me to utilize a variety of methods (e.g. operant procedures, playbacks, matched-controlled observations, hormonal correlates) on one model system and to selectively conduct comparative studies with closely related species to address effects of phylogeny and ecology.

The integrative aspect of the proposed project shall open new possibilities in the research on avian cognition and is expected to have both an impact on current hypotheses on mental evolution and a strong outreach component to lay persons. If birds with a radically different neurobiology and evolutionary trajectory to that of primates come to understand, and use, their social world in a similar way to primates, this would provide strong support for the idea of a convergent evolution and help us understand the selection pressures that may have boosted the evolution of sophisticated mental skills in non-human, and human, primates.

Konrad Lorenz Forschungsstelle
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4645 Grünau


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