May 9, 2019 Leave your thoughts

Cool paper in 3 min (5)

Emery, N. J., & Clayton, N.S. Effects of experience and social context on prospective caching strategies by scrub jays. Nature (2001)

Are complex social behaviours – that many of us may think of as specific to humans – observed in animals that we normally would not think of as smart? To answer this question, Emery and Clayton studied Florida Scrub Jays (SJ).

SJs belong to the Corvidae family (Crows, Ravens, …) and do something extremely interesting: they hide their extra food to come back and have it later. Also SJs steal others’ hidden food.

Emery & Clayton gave extra food to a given SJ (let’s call her Leili) and examined her caching behaviour when (1) another SJ (let’s call him Majnun) was Observing or (2) when Leili was alone and cached Privately. They counted how many times Leili changed hiding location (i.e. food re-caching). Importantly, in condition 1, Leili and Majnoon were placed into transparent neighbouring boxes (see Figure 1) allowing Leili to see clearly that she is being observed by Majnoun. In condition 2, Majnoun’s view was blocked.

Figure 1. Experimental conditions. Top Left: Observed Condition: Leili (white) can see that Majnoun (blue) is watching her. Top right: Private Condition.

They found more re-caching in the social context i.e. when Majnoun was observing Leili, she changed the hiding location many more times. This showed that SJs are sensitive to the social context of being watched by others and adjust their behaviour to reduce the chances of being exploited.

Figure 2. Social context affects caching

Even more interestingly, they found that not all SJ show this social behaviour but only those who had previous experience of having stolen other SJs’ hidden food. Only if Leili had been a thief before, would she worry about having her food stolen by Majnoun.

I don’t think I need to spell out why this paper is cool. It is self-evident.      

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