Ducks learn the concept during a period called imprinting that occurs hours after hatching.
They may seem cute and fluffy, following their mother around but a new study shows ducklings are more than just a cute face. They are able to define the difference between ‘same’ and ‘different’ within a short amount of time from hatching.
While this isn’t a new finding when it comes to primates and some other birds such as parrots, the way ducklings pick up this abstract concept is much quicker than ever known before – a matter of hours after they hatch from their eggs.
The team of scientists from Oxford University focused on the period of imprinting which is the period of time that the ducklings identify their mother and start following her around. They used a group of newly hatched ducklings and exposed them to two different scenarios that would prove whether they understood the difference between same and different.
The groups of ducklings were placed into a space that exposed them to two three-dimensional shapes that were rotating. The first group had pairs of the same shape while the other group had pairs of different shapes – they were with the shapes for 25 minutes. During this imprinting period, the ducklings began to follow the shapes around the space.
Once the time was over, they were placed in a dark space for 30 minutes and then reintroduced to different moving shapes with some pairs of shapes being the ‘same’ (e.g. two cubes) and some ‘different’ (e.g. a cube and a pyramid). What the researchers found was that most of the ducklings followed the shapes that they had been introduced to in the first part of the experiment showing that they had learnt the concept of same and different.
Antone Martinho, a student at Oxford University’s zoology department says although this is pretty amazing, it makes sense for a duck to learn this concept quickly.
“While it seems surprising at first that these one-day-old ducklings can learn something that normally only very intelligent species can do, it also makes biological sense. When a duckling is young, it needs to be able to stay near its mother for protection, and an error in identifying her could be fatal.”
“They need to be able to flexibly and reliably identify her, and a library of concepts and characteristics describing her is a much more efficient way to do so, compared with a visual memory of every possible configuration of the mother and her environment.”
The study was published in the journal Science.