Ravens have something of a famous memory, having shown an ability to recall the faces of their captors and others who have wronged them in the past. But can they turn their mind to the future? New research suggests that indeed they can, finding that these brainy birds' ability to plan ahead is on par with only humans and great apes.

Exhibiting self-control and favoring potential long term rewards over short term inconvenience, like carrying an umbrella around with you just in case it rains, is a type of planning behavior though to be exclusive to humans and great apes.

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But researchers at Lund University have been exploring the idea that ravens too may share some of these traits. In addition to their impressive memories, ravens have also been known to plan for the next day's breakfast by stowing away food in certain compartments, and now the team has found that this kind of foresight extends beyond the realm of meal time.

It did this by setting ravens tasks that they don't encounter in the wild, as a way of investigating their general planning abilities. The experiments centered on tool use and bartering with humans, and were designed to be similar to experiments carried out with apes, making it possible to draw comparisons between the two.

The ravens were made to choose between useless trinkets, tools to retrieve a reward or a token that could be exchanged with a human for a reward, all at a later time and in another location. Over several versions of this experiment, the team added small food items to the mix to test their self-control. They also varied the time between the item selection and the task completion from 15 minutes to 17 hours, as they assessed up the raven's ability to exhibit foresight in obtaining the best outcome.

What the team found through these experiments, was that the birds would carefully select the tool that would be most useful, even if that meant waiting it out for a while and passing on more immediate rewards. The birds performed similarly to apes with regard to tool use (even though they don't use tools themselves), and outperformed apes when it came to bartering.

"To be able to solve tasks like these, one needs a collection of cognitive abilities working in concert, such as inhibitory skills and different forms of memory," says Mathias Osvath, Associate Professor in Cognitive Zoology at Lund University. "That ravens show similar functions, and combine them in ways similar to apes, despite a last common ancestor as far back as 320 million years ago, suggests that evolution likes to re-run good productions."

The team's research was published in the journal Science, while the short video below shows one of the experiments in action.

Source: Lund University