A bird species in Antarctica seems to be able to recognize individual people, a talent we more often hear about in high-IQ birds such as crows and magpies.
A team of scientists from South Korea has just published a study in the journal Animal Cognition detailing its work with brown skuas (Stercorarius antarcticus), Antarctic-breeding seabirds that, in field tests, appeared to be able to recognize specific humans who had been near their nests.
The researchers were checking a colony of the birds’ nests once a week while monitoring their breeding status. Each time they checked the nests, the skuas grew more aggressive in their attacks – “yelling,” following the scientists, and even kicking the heads of the human intruders.
The team decided to test whether or not the birds would know how to tell humans who’d been to their nests from those who had not.
In the sample research video below, two men can be seen walking together. Each peels off in a different direction, with brown skua parents showing an attack preference for the man turning to the right.
The attacked man had visited the birds’ nests and measured the nestlings, while the man turning left had not.
The researchers write that two hypotheses are usually employed to explain how animals distinguish humans: Either they possess pre-existing intelligence that lets them figure it out, or they acquire the ability to discriminate through repeated exposure to humans.
“It appears that cognitive abilities of skuas promote learning of this skill by individual birds during their occasional interactions with humans inhabiting Antarctic stations,” the scientists wrote.
“Since this area has been inhabited by humans only after the Antarctic research stations were installed, we think that the skuas could acquire the discriminatory abilities during a short-term period of living near humans,” said lead author Won Young Lee, senior researcher with the Korea Polar Research Institute, in a press release.
“It is amazing that brown skuas, which evolved and lived in human-free habitats, recognized individual humans after just three or four visits,” marveled Lee. “It seems that they have very high levels of cognitive abilities.”
The scientists said examining other Antarctic species for similar skills could help clarify the role cognitive abilities might play in the capability.