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Socially Smart Ravens Understand Relationship Hierarchy Among Others, Like Apes

First Posted: Apr 24, 2014 07:34 AM EDT

Ravens are intelligent birds. They can figure out to use tools and even be taught to speak certain words. Now, though, scientists have found that they're also socially smart. They've discovered that ravens understand and keep track of rank relations between other ravens.

Keeping track of social standing has previously only been seen in primates. Yet the fact that ravens also have this ability is perhaps not surprising. The birds are social animals, and have social relationships that span from friendship to kin to partners. They can also form strict dominance relations.

In order to examine the social relations among ravens a bit more closely, the scientists took a look at a group of captive ravens. Using a playback design, the researchers allowed individual ravens to hear a dominance interaction between two other ravens. These interactions were either in accordance with the existing dominance hierarchy in the group, or reflected a potential rank reversal-a low-ranking bird showed off to a higher-ranking bird.

So how did the ravens react? It turns out the birds reacted strongly when there was a rank reversal. They responded with information-seeking and stress-related behaviors, such as head turns and body shakes. This suggested that their expectations about how the dominance relations among others should look like were being violated.

That's not all that the researchers found, either. They also noted that the ravens not only responded to simulated rank reversals in their own group, but also responded to ones in a neighboring group. This suggests that the birds can deduce others' rank relations just by watching them. This is the first time that animals have been shown to be capable of tracking rank relations among individuals that don't belong to their own social group.

"As the birds in our experiment never had any physical contact with their neighboring group and could only see and hear them, these results suggest that ravens also have mental representations about others," said Jorg Massen, one of the researchers, in a news release.

The findings reveal a bit more about the social intelligence of ravens. Not only that, but it shows how these birds are on a similar social level as primates.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.

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