Thomas Bugnyar
Researchers found that ravens often use their beaks like hands to make gestures toward others. This male raven is showing two of its kin an object in its beak.
By
updated 11/29/2011 1:28:33 PM ET 2011-11-29T18:28:33

Ravens use their beaks and wings much like humans rely on our hands to make gestures, such as for pointing to an object, scientists now find.

This is the first time researchers have seen gestures used in this way in the wild by animals other than primates.

From the age of 9 to 12 months, human infants often use gestures to direct the attention of adults to objects, or to hold up items so that others can take them. These gestures, produced before children speak their first words, are seen as milestones in the development of human speech.

Thomas Bugnyar
A male raven approaches two other ravens to show off the object it is holding in its beak.

Dogs and other animals are known to point out items using gestures, but humans trained these animals, and scientists had suggested the natural development of these gestures was normally confined only to primates, said researcher Simone Pika, a biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany. Even then, comparable gestures are rarely seen in the wild in our closest living relatives, the great apes — for instance, chimpanzees in the Kibale National Park in Uganda employ so-called directed scratches to indicate distinct spots on their bodies they want groomed.

Still, ravens and their relatives such as crows and magpies have been found to be remarkably intelligent over the years, surpassing most other birds in terms of smarts and even rivaling great apes on some tests.

"(What) I noticed when I encountered ravens for the first time is that they are, contrary to my main focus of research, chimpanzees, a very object-oriented species," Pika said. "It reminded me of my childhood, when my twin brother and I were still little and one of us suddenly regained a favorite toy, which existence both of us had forgotten for a little while. This toy suddenly became the center of interest, fun and competition. Similar things happen, when ravens play with each other and regain objects."

Beak gestures
To see if ravens communicated using gestures, scientists investigated wild ravens in Cumberland Wildpark in Grünau, Austria. Each bird was individually tagged to help identify them.

  1. Science news from NBCNews.com
    1. NOAA
      Cosmic rays may spark Earth's lightning

      All lightning on Earth may have its roots in space, new research suggests.

    2. How our brains can track a 100 mph pitch
    3. Moth found to have ultrasonic hearing
    4. Quantum network could secure Internet

The researchers saw the ravens use their beaks much like hands to show and offer items such as moss, stones and twigs. These gestures were mostly aimed at members of the opposite sex and often led those gestured at to look at the objects. The ravens then interacted with each other — for example, by touching or clasping their bills together, or by manipulating the item together. As such, these gestures might be used to gauge the interest of a potential partner or strengthen an already existing bond.

"Most exciting is how a species, which does not represent the prototype of a 'gesturer' because it has wings instead of hands, a strong beak and can fly, makes use of very sophisticated nonvocal signals," Pika told LiveScience.

Origin of gestures
Ravens are known to possess a relatively high degree of cooperation between partners. These findings suggest that gestures evolved in a species that demonstrates a high degree of collaborative abilities, a discovery that might shed light on the origin of gestures within humans.

"Gesture studies have too long focused on communicative skills of primates only," Pika said. "The mystery of the origins of human language, however, can only be solved if we look at the bigger picture and also consider the complexity of the communication systems of other animal groups."

As to whether or not these findings suggest that ravens are smarter than dogs, "I am not an advocate of proposing that a given species is smarter than another one," Pika said. "In my view, all species have adapted to distinct social and ecological settings and niches, and thus, a given species might behave in a distinct situation 'smarter' than another one in the same situation and vice versa. In my opinion, it is much more interesting to investigate why one species can solve a given task better than another one and how and why this behavior evolved."

Pika and her colleagues would like to further explore what other gestures ravens use and what their meaning and function might be. Pika and Thomas Bugnyar detailed their findings online Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Explainer: The world’s 10 smartest animals

  • EBU

    We humans have the ability to learn, to reason and solve problems. We're self-aware, and we're also conscious of the presence, thoughts and feelings of others. We make tools and practice the art of deception. We're creative. We think abstractly. We have language and use it to express complex ideas. All of these are arguably signs of intelligence. Scientists may not agree on the best and fullest definition of intelligence — but they generally agree that humans are highly intelligent.

    Other members of the animal kingdom exhibit signs of intelligence as well, and some scientists might say the definition of animal vs. human intelligence is merely a matter of degree - a point that was brought home in 2005 when the London Zoo put "Homo sapiens" on display in the exhibit pictured here. Click ahead to learn about nine other species that stand out for their smarts.

  • Chimps are almost like us

    Tetsuro Matsuzawa  /  AP

    If we humans possess intelligence, chimpanzees must have some as well: Our genomes are at least 98 percent identical. Chimps make and use tools, hunt in organized groups and engage in acts of violence. Wild troops have distinct behaviors and customs. Field observations and lab experiments show chimps are capable of empathy, altruism and self-awareness. In the experiment pictured here, chimps performed better than humans on a number memory test.

  • Dolphins get creative

    Janet Mann  /  Georgetown University

    This dolphin in Australia uses a sponge to protect her snout when foraging on the seafloor, a tool use behavior that is passed on from mother to daughter. Scientists say that's just one sign of dolphin smarts. Other signs include distinct whistles and clicks that may serve as dolphin names, perhaps used in a type of language. A famous 1960s experiment found that a pair of dolphins entered a tizzy of creativity once they figured out their novel behaviors were rewarded with fish. Frustrated human test subjects just let out a sigh of relief when they caught on to the idea.

  • Elephants exhibit self-awareness

    AP

    The sheer size of their brains suggests that elephants must know a thing or two about the ways of the world. They have been seen consoling family members, helping other species in times of need, playing in water and communicating with one another via vibrations sensed in their feet. A crowning achievement, some researchers say, was when this female Asian elephant named Happy recognized herself in the mirror. The complex behavior is shared only with humans, great apes and dolphins.

  • Cephalopods have big brains

    Binyamin Hochner

    Are octopi, squids and cuttlefish smart? That's a matter of scientific intrigue, but such cephalopods are certainly among the brainiest invertebrates in the sea. The cephalopod brain surrounds the esophagus, but shares with the human brain features of complexity such as folded lobes and distinct regions for processing visual and tactile information. The how-smart debate swirls around deciphering observations that the creatures have a seemingly irrepressible curiosity, a disdain for boredom, an ability to learn and the capacity to use tools. The octopus pictured here exerts precise muscle control to eat.

  • Crows get crafty

    Alex Kacelnik et al.  /  University of Oxford

    Crows are crafty critters: They fashion tools from twigs, feathers and other bits of debris to snare food from hard-to-reach places. A crow named Betty, pictured here, uses a straight wire she bent into a hook to retrieve food from a tube. The birds are born with a tool-making ethic, but they hone their craft by watching their elders, a sign of higher intelligence. Ravens, a type of crow, have even been shown to manipulate the outcomes of their social interactions for added protection and more food.

  • Squirrels can be deceptive

    Gabriel Bouys  /  AFP - Getty Images file

    Is the squirrel pictured here plotting deception? Perhaps. Researchers recently reported that the rodents put on elaborate shows of deceptive caching to thwart would-be thieves. The behavior increased in a lab experiment after squirrels observed humans stealing their peanuts. The researchers called the finding a sign that squirrels can interpret intentions of others, though it could just be a case of learned behavior. Other studies have shown the critters make three-dimensional maps to recall where they cache their nuts. And squirrels in California will cover their fur in the scent of rattlesnakes to mask their own scent from predators.

  • Man's best friend

    University of Vienna

    Are dogs intelligent or just really good at basic obedience? They can learn to sit, lie down and fetch, for example, but can they read their owner's intentions? Research suggests they can at least find food in response to non-verbal cues, a type of understanding that scientists think may be akin to the human ability to understand someone else's point of view. The dog in the experiment pictured here accurately discriminated between photos of dogs and photos of landscapes — an indication the dog was able to form the concept of "dog."

  • Cats are adaptable

    Bob Pennell  /  AP

    Like dog owners, some cat owners have trained their pets to sit down, roll over and jump through hoops. Cats learn the tricks by observation and imitation, egged on with positive reinforcement. But training cats is harder than dogs. Does that mean they are less intelligent? Not necessarily. Cat experts say felines are just different. They are solitary animals, motivated by the need to survive. This has allowed them to adapt to a variety of domestic environments for at least 9,500 years - even the hoods of cars.

  • Pigs are wise ... and clean

    Paulo Whitaker  /  Reuters

    Here's the dirt on pigs: They are perhaps the smartest, cleanest domestic animals known - more so than cats and dogs, according to some experts. But pigs don't have sweat glands, so they roll around in the mud to stay cool. A sign of their cleverness came from experiments in the 1990s. Pigs were trained to move a cursor on a video screen with their snouts and used the cursor to distinguish between scribbles they knew and those they were seeing for the first time. They learned the task as quickly as chimpanzees.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments