One member of a research team from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands spent 7 months in bird cognition expert Nicola Clayton’s University of Cambridge lab in the United Kingdom studying Western scrub jays, a member of the crow family that is often used for these studies. The Groningen team then developed a computer model in which “virtual jays” cached food under various conditions.
In PLOS ONE, they argued that the model showed the jays’ might be moving their food—or recaching it—not because they were reading the minds of their competitors, but simply because of the stress of having another bird present (especially a more dominant one) and of losing food to thieves. The result contradicted previous work by Clayton’s group suggesting that crows might have a humanlike awareness of other creatures’ mental states—a cognitive ability known as theory of mind that has been claimed in dogs, chimps, and even rats.
In the new study, Clayton and her Cambridge graduate student James Thom decided to test the stress hypothesis. First, they replicated earlier work on scrub jays by letting the birds hide peanuts in trays of ground corn cobs—either unobserved or with another bird watching—and later giving them a chance to rebury them. As in previous studies, the jays recached a much higher proportion of the peanuts if another bird could see them: nearly twice as much as in private, the team reports online today in PLOS ONE.
Then came the stress test. First, Thom and Clayton gave the jays trays with the ground cobs but no food to hide in them—a so-called “sham” session. Then, in a second session, they gave the birds new hiding trays and bowls of peanuts to hide. When the jays were done, the experimenters removed the trays and stole all of the peanuts. Finally, after a short break, the researchers gave each bird yet another round of food, a new tray to hide it in, and one of the trays it had seen earlier: either the sham tray or the ransacked “pilfer” tray. The jays had 10 minutes for recaching.
If the Groningen model was correct, Thom and Clayton argue, the stress of discovering that food was missing from the pilfer tray ought to drive jays to cache more peanuts than those presented with the sham tray. In fact, there was no difference, even though corvids have excellent memories for hidden food and remarkable abilities to find it again. The hypothesis that jays have theory of mind remains on the table, Thom says.