• The ability to pass on and improve on knowledge is known as cumulative culture
  • Until now only humans were thought capable of passing on such information
  • Over generations pigeons streamlined their route to be more direct and faster

Homing pigeons are known for their impressive ability to navigate home over long distances.

Now a new study suggests this skill may be passed on between generations.

Researchers believe that homing pigeons share the human capacity to build on the knowledge of others, which explains why their navigational accuracy improves over time.

This is the first time that the ability to find and improve on knowledge over generations has been seen in a non-human species.

Researchers from Oxford University conducted a study testing whether homing pigeons can gradually improve their flight paths over time.

They removed and replaced individuals in pairs of birds that were given a specific navigational task.

Researchers simulated generational succession by replacing birds familiar with the route with inexperienced birds that had never flown the course before.

The idea was that experienced individuals could pass their experience of the route down to the next pair generation.

This would enable the collective intelligence of the group to continuously improve the route’s efficiency.

The findings, published in Nature Communications, suggest that over time the student does indeed become the teacher and pigeons learn from each other.

Results showed that the birds’ homing performance improved consistently over generations – they streamlined their route to be more direct, making them faster than those that worked the route out on their own.

Dr Sasaki, co-author of the study, said: ‘At one stage scientists thought that only humans had the cognitive capacity to accumulate knowledge as a society.

‘Our study shows that pigeons share these abilities with humans, at least to the extent that they are capable of improving on a behavioural solution progressively over time.

‘Nonetheless, we do not claim that they achieve this through the same processes’, he said.

Dr Dora Biro, co-author of the study, added: ‘One key novelty, we think, is that the gradual improvement we see is not due to new ‘ideas’ about how to improve the route being introduced by individual birds.

‘Instead, the necessary innovations in each generation come from a form of collective intelligence that arises through pairs of birds having to solve the problem together – in other words through “two heads being better than one.”‘

Moving forward, the team hopes to build on the study by investigating if a similar style of knowledge sharing and accumulation occurs in other multi-generational species’ social groups.


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