How Magpies Foiled Researchers In Australia | NOVA
When Dominique Potvin and his team set out to test new bird tracking technology, they did not think they were entering into an interspecific game of one-upmanship. Instead, Potvin, an animal ecologist at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, hoped to both track animal movements and solve a persistent problem in the study of birds. About 70% are too small to track using a traditional battery-powered GPS tracker, as the weight of the devices can affect them. The new harness trackers that Potvin and his team had developed weighed just one gram, with a strap that could come loose if the birds approached a specialized magnetic station. This would allow researchers to collect the trackers without having to recapture the birds.
“We wanted to see if the new design would work as expected and find out what kind of data we could collect,” Potvin wrote in a recent post. for The Talk. “How far did the magpies go? Did they have any habits or schedules throughout the day in terms of movement and socializing? How did age, gender, or dominance rank affect their activities? The Australian magpies also seemed to him a species of choice for testing new tracking technologies due to their larger size. The accepted size of a tracker in birding is about 3% to 5% of an animal’s body weight. These new trackers weighed around 1%. “We were excited about the design,” she wrote.
But the magpies had other ideas. In the month that Potvin and his team spent fitting five magpies with trackers and observing their behavior, “we directly observed four actively removing the trackers”, they written in a study published last month in the journal Australian Field Ornithology. At first the birds were pecking at their own trackers, but then something more interesting happened. An adult female approached one of the juveniles with a tracker and pecked at the device until it broke loose and fell off. At the same time, elsewhere, another adult magpie also had its device destroyed by a companion. Soon all other tracers had been deleted.
The team wasn’t too worried when the magpies started pecking at the harnesses, “but as time passed and the more they worked on the harness, the more worried we became,” Potvin said by email. “As soon as that first tracker came out, we just stared at each other in disbelief: we knew it was all over!”
She and her team were amazed. What, they wondered, could this unlikely outcome mean?
Potvin and his team saw the magpies’ little mutiny as something more than a stunt. Australian birds have a reputation for being collaborative. The continent is the world capital of cooperative breeding, where birds help raise chicks of the same species that are not their own, a behavior Australian magpies adopt. They are also known to work together to defend their territories.
Since magpies already have experience cooperating to solve problems, the authors say they could apply the same strategy to a new challenge. They interpreted magpies withdrawing trackers from each other as altruistic behavior or actions that only benefit another individual. The first magpie to destroy another’s harness wasn’t wearing one herself, Potvin said via email, meaning “the job wasn’t going to be reciprocated.” She noted, however, that it is possible that the behavior strengthens social relationships, creating long-term benefits. “These types of rewards are certainly plausible, but we have no way of knowing if they played a role in this activity,” she wrote.
Looking for an explanation, Potvin and his team first thought of allopreening, a behavior where birds clean themselves — sometimes by removing parasites — to strengthen their bonds. But it’s “very simple behavior, which doesn’t involve any sort of determination, persistence, or problem-solving,” she wrote, “it’s not really ‘targeted’ with a specific goal in head.”
Instead, they thought the most likely explanation was that magpies exhibited ‘rescue behavior’, a very rare phenomenon in which a service animal works to free a peer in distress, with no benefit to itself. . While the tracker isn’t dangerous, carrying it “may have felt ‘tangled'” to the magpies, Potvin wrote, prompting other birds to react.
Removing the trackers represented a series of puzzles “requiring cooperation (the bird with the tracker had to stay still for the other bird to work on it!), a bit of altruism, and some cognitive problem-solving,” a- she added. Such rescue behavior has been observed in Seychelles warblers, which sometimes get sticky seeds caught in their feathers, but so far researchers have not documented it in other birds. “It is possible that what we have observed is the first documented case of rescue behavior in Australian magpies,” the team concluded in their study.
Gisela Kaplan, a professor of animal behavior and zoologist at the University of New England in Australia who has studied Australian magpies for decades, agrees that pilot studies like Potvin’s are valuable for testing new technologies on a small scale. But she points out that the group of five magpies was likely a family, making the observations the equivalent of a single anecdote. “I saw a lot of individual behavior in magpies that I couldn’t explain,” says Kaplan – for example, she wrote for The Talk about a magpie in her yard who appeared to be gardening with her, and another case in which a person walked into her house and pecked at her keyboard after seeing her typing – “but I wouldn’t have written an article on this subject.”
Lisa Horn, a comparative behavior researcher in Vienna, Austria who studies altruistic behavior, agrees, especially since the team did not set out to test this type of behavior. “Coming from a cognitive biology tradition, we are very careful with our experimental design, to try to rule out any other explanations and carefully control the conditions,” she says. But this kind of design is impossible when the result is an accident.
Kaplan suggests that there are other possible explanations for the magpies’ digital striptease that could be just as interesting, including “playing behavior, competitive behavior, all sorts of things.” Kaplan’s research has shown that juvenile magpies play a lot, including with each other and with objects. “The item play I’ve observed is always competitive,” she says, adding that many of these play interactions include stealing a desired item.
Another possibility, suggests Horn, is simple distress. “A lot of songbirds, and also Australian magpies, have very close social bonds with their mate,” she says. “If something happens to my mate, and it freaks him out, it freaks me out too.” This leads to what Horn calls “emotional contagion” and the desire on all sides to resolve the distressing situation. It’s a much simpler mechanism found in a wider range of animals than generosity, empathy or altruism, she says. The danger in such circumstances is anthropomorphism, attributing human experiences to animals because that is how we might behave or feel. “Especially in cognitive biology and behavioral biology, we are very careful with the use of these terms,” she says.
But while Potvin agrees it’s important to think about anthropomorphism, she thinks it can sometimes be “helpful, even somewhat accurate” to consider the parallels between human and animal behavior. “The risk comes when we think we know what the birds are really thinking,” she said by email. For example, they don’t know how the birds saw the trackers, or their troubleshooting strategy for removing them. “But we know what they did, and that in itself is quite impressive.”
Horn and Kaplan agree that the idea that magpies may exhibit rescue behavior is plausible. After all, birds are remarkably cooperative in other ways. Additionally, similar empathic “consolation” behavior has been observed a few times in crows. And in Horn’s own research, she found that certain crows and magpies (but not those in Potvin’s study) were particularly likely to help others. Since the two species in Horn’s research were also cooperative breeders, she speculates that having “such a family system – parents but also maybe aunts, uncles, someone else helping out – seems to have led to a great part of this prosocial behavior in other areas”.
But, says Kaplan, jumping straight to rescue is a big deal because it involves empathy, or even a “theory of mind,” the ability to imagine an experience different from one’s own, something all of them lack. animals, except the most intelligent. And even if magpies turn out to have a theory of mind, it’s a separate thing to say “I care,” adds Horn.
Still, Potvin reckons that’s not such a huge leap, given that magpies’ cognitive abilities and complex social relationships are well established. Since the publication of her study, many readers have contacted her to describe examples of similar behaviors that seem altruistic or “rescue-like”. Could this suggest that the behavior may be more common than previously thought? “I think many people who observe and study birds have seen similar behaviors,” she wrote via email, “and so the evidence is there for them.”
Kaplan hopes that Potvin and his team (or someone else in the avian cognition community) will use these observations as a starting point, carefully designing an experiment to test their rescue behavior hypothesis – perhaps a study for to see if Australian magpies would work together to get food or help a peer overwhelmed by a burden or restriction similar to trackers. The study provides a great starting point, she says: incidental sightings are “often the beginning of later experiments.” It highlights Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin on a moldy dish. “The big point was that he didn’t expect this outcome, but he was in the right place at the right time and had the training to pursue this scientifically,” she says. Someone else might have spotted the mold and thrown the whole thing away. ” But he did not do it. He thought it was an important event.
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