South Korea scientists found that brown skuas (Stercorarius antarcticus), a bird species endemic in Antarctica, can recognize humans on a later encounter, a feat only more intelligent birds like magpies and crows are able to pull off.
The research team noted that these birds apparently could tell which humans had been near their nests before.
A study detailing the findings was published this week in the journal Animal Cognition.
In field tests, researchers got near the skuas’ nests once a week to see whether their eggs hatched. But each passing week, the birds got more and more aggressive, screeching, following intruders, and even pecking the humans’ heads.
The research team had the idea of an experiment to see whether the Antarctic creatures could tell one human intruder from another. Two researchers volunteered to visit the nests and each one of them to turn in an opposite direction afterwards.
Footage of the experiment shows that skuas showed a particular interest and were clearly more aggressive with the human that had been before at their nests. The birds were more vocal with the researcher that turned to the right since he had visited their breeding grounds prior and assessed their nestlings.
Scientists are not quite sure how birds, which lack language function and the ability to think in words, can recognize a specific figure. Biologists believe that they either have a pre-existing intelligence or they simply learn the skill of recognizing humans as they get in contact more often.
The research team believes that skuas acquire the skill as they occasionally meet with human intruders. Since the Antarctic is dotted with research stations inhabited by humans, the feathered creatures had plenty of occasions to interact with people.
Won Young Lee, lead author of the study and bird expert at the Korea Polar Research Institute, noted that the Antarctic birds learned the skill in a relatively short time as Antarctic research stations haven’t been around since forever.
Lee and his team are surprised that brown skuas can detect humans after just three or four visits to their nests though they may have never met one before. The team concluded that the birds must have very high cognitive skills.
As a follow-up the South Korean team plans to study other Antarctic denizens with similar abilities to see whether a high IQ is associated with such capabilities.
Image Source: Wikimedia