Category Archives: blog

Two radio-tagged Amur falcons reach Somalia in five days —

Amur Falcon (male) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Amur Falcon (male) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Two satellite-tagged female Amur falcons, ‘Longleng’ and ‘Tamenglong’, named after two districts of Nagaland and Manipur, flew non-stop for five days to cover 5,700 km to reach a stop-over site in Somalia on 24 November 2018, said Wildlife Institute of India scientist (WII) R Suresh Kumar.

They were radio-tagged in the first week of November along with a male falcon as part of India’s first project to study the route of the long-distance migratory birds. The male falcon named Manipur was reportedly killed somewhere in Tamenglong district on November 9. Tamenglong started its non-stop migration on November 9 while Longleng started on November 19.

“Tamenglong reached Somalia around 1 pm (Indian time) on Saturday (November 24) while Longleng reached around 5 pm on Friday (November 23),” Kumar said. “They are likely to spend a few days in Somalia before embarking on their final journey to South Africa.”

The falcons spend their summers at their breeding grounds in southeast Russia and northeast China. They migrate to their wintering grounds in South Africa, from where they start their return journey in April-May through Afghanistan and East Asia, undertaking a yearly journey of about 20,000 km. In between, they stop in India’s northeast, where they have been killed in large numbers in recent years, and Somalia.

In their journey, these pigeon-sized birds arrive in large numbers during October in Nagaland and Manipur besides a few places in northeast India. They leave the region in November after having enough food for their non-stop flight to Africa where they spend their winters.

“They visit the northeast routinely because they know the availability of food in the region even though they pass through the Indian sub-continent during the journey,” Kumar said. “These birds feed on flying termites and insects etc.” Kumar said satellite tagging enables them to understand the birds and helps their conservation because through their migratory route they can study the environmental cues including wind pattern. The WII has radio-tagged 10 birds over the last five years. 

The information gained can also help raise international awareness about the species and promote falcon conservation, he added. Kumar applauded local communities in Nagaland and Manipur for their conservation effort to save falcons in recent years.

In case of Manipur, Rainforest Club Tamenglong and state forest department have been observing Amur Falcon festival in November annually since 2015 to spread awareness about the bird among the masses. (Hindustan Times)

Nature pushed to the brink by runaway consumption: WWF —

Palila is a critically endangered finch-billed species of Hawaiian honeycreeper

Palila is a critically endangered finch-billed species of Hawaiian honeycreeper

Unbridled consumption has decimated global wildlife, triggered a mass extinction and exhausted Earth’s capacity to accommodate humanity’s expanding appetites, conservation group WWF warned on 30 October 2018.

From 1970 to 2014, a total of 60 per cent of all animals with a backbone – fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals – were wiped out by human activity, according to WWF’s Living Planet report, based on an ongoing survey of more than 4,000 species spread over 16,700 populations scattered across the globe.

“The situation is really bad, and it keeps getting worse,” WWF International director-general Marco Lambertini told Agence France-Presse.

“The only good news is that we know exactly what is happening.”

For freshwater fauna, the decline in population over the 44 years monitored was 80 per cent. Regionally, Latin America was hit hardest, seeing a nearly 90 per cent loss of wildlife over the same period.

Another data set confirmed the depth of an unfolding mass extinction event, only the sixth in the last half-billion years.

Depending on which of Earth’s lifeforms are included, the current rate of species loss is 100 to 1,000 times higher than only a few hundred years ago, when people began to alter Earth’s chemistry and crowd other creatures out of existence.

Measured by weight, or biomass, wild animals today account for only 4 per cent of mammals on Earth, with humans (36 per cent) and livestock (60 per cent) making up the rest.

“The statistics are scary,” said researcher Piero Visconti at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, one of 59 co-authors of the report.

“Unlike population declines, extinctions are irreversible.”

For corals, it may be too late.

Back-to-back marine heatwaves have already wiped out up to half of the globe’s shallow-water reefs, which support a quarter of all marine life.

Even if humanity manages to cap global warming at 1.5 deg C, coral mortality will likely be 70 to 90 per cent. A 2 deg C rise would be a death sentence, a major United Nations report concluded this month.

The onslaught of hunting, shrinking habitat, pollution, illegal trade and climate change has been too much to overcome, Mr Lambertini said.

“It is the exponential growth over the last 50 years in the use of energy, water, timber, fish, food, fertiliser, pesticides, minerals, plastics – everything.”

“We need a new global deal for nature,” he added, noting two key ingredients in the 195-nation Paris climate treaty.

“One was the realisation that climate change was dangerous for the economy and society, not just polar bears,” Mr Lambertini said.

Similarly, he argued, threatened ecosystem services long taken for granted – drinkable water, breathable air, heat-absorbing oceans, forests that soak up carbon dioxide, productive soil – are worth tens of trillions of dollars every year.

“A healthy, sustainable future for all is only possible on a planet where nature thrives and forests, oceans and rivers are teeming with biodiversity and life,” he said. (The Straits Times)

Mountain birds on the ‘escalator to extinction’ : claims study —

Researchers have long predicted many creatures will seek to escape a warmer world by moving towards higher ground.

Russet-crowned Warbler

Russet-crowned Warbler

However, those living at the highest levels cannot go any higher, and have been forecast to decline.

This study found that eight bird species that once lived near a Peruvian mountain peak have now disappeared.

Researchers are particularly concerned about tropical mountain ranges and the impacts of climate change.

“The tropical mountain areas are the hottest of biodiversity hotspots; they harbour more species than any other place on Earth,” lead author Dr Benjamin Freeman from the University of British Columbia told BBC News.

“It’s only got a little bit warmer in the tropics and tropical plants and animals seem to be living quite a bit higher now than they used to.”

The species that live in these regions are also hugely vulnerable because the difference in temperatures between lower and higher elevations in tropical regions is not as great as it is in other parts of the world. This means that moving up the slopes may not be as much of a solution for species in the tropics as it is elsewhere.

To test these ideas, scientists carried out a survey in 2017 of bird species that lived on a remote Peruvian mountain peak.

The team covered the same ground, at the same time of year, and used the same methods as a previous survey, carried out in 1985.

They found that on average, species’ ranges had shifted up the slope between the two surveys. Most of the species that had been found at the highest elevations declined significantly in both range and abundance.

The researchers say that recent warming constitutes an “escalator to extinction” for some of these species with temperatures in the area increasing by almost half a degree Celsius between the two surveys.

Of 16 species that were restricted to the very top of the ridge, eight had disappeared completely in the most recent survey.

“These birds have moved up the mountain as much as you’d predict if temperature was this master switch that controlled where they live,” said Dr Freeman.

“The ones that lived near the top 30 years ago are gone.”

The authors warn that rising temperatures will continue to drive widespread “extirpations and extinctions” of high-elevation animals and plants across the tropical Andes mountains.

In contrast, the scientists found that bird species living in lowland areas were benefitting from climate change, expanding their ranges, and shifting their upper limits further up the mountains.

However, even the species that are now on the move may find that they run out of options over time.

The authors say that if global temperatures rise this century between 2.6C and 4.8C, this could push tropical species a further 500m to 900m up the slopes. This might prove too far for some.

Another problem is that many mountains have been cleared of their forests, which limits the capacity of species to move up at all.

“You really can’t ignore this process if you are thinking of long-term biodiversity and conservation in these areas,” said Dr Freeman.

“The way to deal with it is to maintain protected habitat corridors that stretch across large elevational gradients.” (BBC News)

 

Endangered Himalayan vulture makes a comeback in Kinnaur —

Two Himalayan Griffon Vultures in Jatayu Conservation Breeding Centre (JCBC) in Bir Shikargah in Pinjore (Haryana, India) before their release in the wild on 03 June 2016; (pix SShukla)

Two Himalayan Griffon Vultures in Jatayu Conservation Breeding Centre (JCBC) in Bir Shikargah, Pinjore (Haryana, India) before their release in the wild on 03 June 2016; (pix SShukla)

Endangered Himalayan Griffon vulture (Gyps himalayensis), also known as Himalayan vulture, seems to have made a comeback in Himachal Pradesh. Bird watchers and wildlife experts have reported sighting the endangered bird in tribal Kinnaur district. The rare raptors were spotted at a reservoir across the Baspa river in Kinnaur district’s Sangla valley during a three-day birding event in Sangla Rakcham and Chitkul valley, organised by wildlife wing of the forest department.

“It was a different experience to spot endangered Himalayan Vulture in the tribal region. Vultures had almost disappeared from this region,” said chief conservator of forest (wildlife) Shushil Kapta.

Apart from Himalayan vultures, birders said they also spotted over 60 species of birds, including White-cheeked Nuthatch, Ferruginous Pochard, Bearded Vulture, European Goldfinch, Eurasian Sparrow hawk and Red-headed Bullfinch.

The objective of the three-day birding, which commenced on October 14, was to assess presence of different species of birds at the wildlife sanctuaries in tribal Kinnaur district.

The endangered vulture

This bird used to be found in abundance in the mountainous regions of south East Asia in Nepal, India, Afghanistan and Tibetan plateau. About two decades ago bird’s population declined drastically, wiping out 90 per cent of them. After research and observations by various experts Diclofenac, a veterinary drug used to treat cattle was found to be the real culprit for killing these birds.

Around ten years back, ornithologists across the world called for monitoring population of vultures, post which Himachal’s wildlife wing undertook a statewide study and found that the vulture population had declined.

Studies found that the exploitation of cheer pine forest was also impacting the breeding of vultures that use old dried trees for roosting and surveillance. Cheer trees are used for tapping resin. Vultures use needles and branches of pines for their nests.

“Vulture population had declined sharply but after department took up initiatives, it started to show results. The government had even set up vulture restaurants (feeding stations) in different places in Kangra,” Kapta said.

“The wildlife wing also encouraged locals and forest department to protect trees around nesting sites,” said Satpal Dhiman, joint secretary, forest.

The conservation programme, initiated in 2004, focused on monitoring of nests and enforcing ban on Diclofenac through conservation education alongside other strategies by involving local communities.

The wildlife wing had mapped more than 354 nests and about 374 fledging. (Hindustan Times)

Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin, a rare bird, sighted in Gurugram —

Rufous-tailed scrub Robin (Licenced -- CC BY-SA 4.0 -- Author -- El Golli Mohamed)

Rufous-tailed scrub Robin (Licence — CC BY-SA 4.0 — Author — El Golli Mohamed)

A rare migratory bird, the Rufous-tailed scrub robin (Cercotrichas galactotes), a medium-sized bird, was sighted on 26 August 2018 at the Aravali Biodiversity Park in Gurugram in Haryana (India). It was spotted for the first time in the park last year.

According to birder Amit Sharma, who spotted the bird along with two other enthusiasts, Gaurav Yadav and Janardan Barthwal, “sightings during the same time of the year (for two straight years) might indicate that the bird has made Gurugram its monsoon migratory destination.” “Last year, during the same time, I saw a Rufous-tailed scrub robin in the Aravali Biodiversity Park of Gurugram.

Pankaj Gupta of the NGO Delhi Bird Foundation agreed, saying, “Native plantation in the park is definitely paying off in protecting and inviting rare species. Vijay Dashmana, chief ecologist at the Aravali Biodiversity Park said, “The rich forest habitats created at the park has attracted many bird species to the park. The bird is generally spotted in scrub forests and migrates from the Gulf region to India.

Other common names of the bird include the rufous scrub robinrufous bush chat, rufous bush robin and the rufous warbler. It breeds around the Mediterranean and east to Pakistan. Bird of dry open country with bushes and shrubs, it also breeds south of the Sahara from the Sahel region east to Somalia. It is partially migratory, wintering in Africa (Kenya, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia) and India. (Times of India)

The curious case of blushing macaws —

Blushing Macaws (Pix-journal.pone - Photographic representation of the position of crown, nape and cheek feathers. (All photographs taken by A. Beraud)

Blushing Macaws (Pix-journal.pone – Photographic representation of the position of crown, nape and cheek feathers. (All photographs taken by A. Beraud)

Ever heard of macaws that blush, much like humans at an emotional moment? Researchers still don’t quite understand how it works, but a French team says they have observed the phenomenon multiple times in a group of five captive blue-and-yellow macaws. 

They published their findings on 22 August 2018 in the journal ‘PLOS One’. 

Blue-and-yellow macaws have a part of their cheeks that is naked, uncovered by feathers, and researchers noticed that this fair skin would redden during interactions with their handlers. “Birds don’t have muscles in their faces,” explained lead researcher Aline Bertin of INRA. 

Anecdotally, people who took care of macaws noticed them blushing, their cheeks reddening with increased blood flow, much like in humans. But they still needed to document the phenomenon. 

So they set up an experiment to film and photograph the birds on perches during organised interactions with their habitual human handlers, such as talking and looking at them. They saw the birds’ skin reddened around the eyes during these encounters. 

“But we don’t know if these birds can feel positive emotions,” said Bertin. (AFP)

Do Penguins Mate for Life? Paternity Tests prove otherwise —

Gentoo penguin

Gentoo penguin

Roto and Copper, two Gentoo penguins at Loveland Living Planet Aquarium in Utah, cared for three children together, taking turns feeding them. They’re a social pair, just like Coco and Gossamer, a neighboring penguin couple that raised their own chicks.

Or did they?

We tend to think of penguins as monogamous, with social bonds formed between two parents for life. But researchers have discovered that penguins in captivity, like some species in the wild, sometimes stray. After sampling the DNA of 19 Gentoo penguins at the aquarium, researchers revealed last month in the journal ZooBiology that Roto is the father of two chicks believed to be Gossamer’s offspring.

“We’ll go back to the classic movies where the male gives the female a rock and they start to build their nest with it, and they are totally monogamous,” Steve Vogel, the aquarium’s zoological operations director said, “and that is not true 20 percent of the time.” At least not at this aquarium.

The story sounds like a daytime TV talk show, climaxing with a surprise paternity test result. But for zoo animals, it’s important. These penguins are set to be part of a program pairing the most genetically diverse animals from different facilities, like people in a matchmaking service, to ensure a strong, healthy penguin population in case this species ever goes extinct. Although Gentoo penguins are doing relatively O.K. in the wild, other species face threats from climate change, overfishing, oil drilling and other factors.

For this penguin dating service to work, documenting familial lineages is critical to avoiding inbreeding. And while the sample size is small, the study suggests that using DNA evidence to confirm behavioral observations may be the best way to ensure healthy penguin populations of the future.

At the aquarium, staff monitors the penguins like producers on a reality TV show. When they spot two penguins engaging in mating behavior, they call in a “code Romeo.” The signal summons an animal keeper, who determines as best she can which two penguins are getting busy, and documents it in the Gentoo Penguin Studbook, a database shared among zoos and aquariums that will be used to make the most genetically diverse matches.

At Loveland, staff started noticing some penguins mating outside their social pairs. This called for paternity testing.

Of eight offspring they tested, two had a biological father that wasn’t their social father. In other words, Roto and Coco had been sneaking around. Another rogue female had been mating with two different males too — even though the males were in stable social pairs.

Eric Domyan, a biology professor at Utah Valley University who led the testing, wasn’t surprised. “Most species that we think of as monogamous, including our very own species, we know that there’s always an asterisk beside that,” he said. “It’s very rare to find monogamy in any species where there’s 100 percent fidelity to one’s mate. I expected that to be the case with penguins as well.”

For those concerned about the lives of unfaithful penguins, there’s a moral to the story: “We could say that penguins are human too,” said Dr. Domyan. He added, “It’s probably not realistic to expect animals to have a higher level of moral perfection than we do.” (New York Times)

New Zealand seabirds dying due to plastic ingestion —

Birds ingest plastic that leads to damage to internal organs, causes gut blockage or chemical build-ups in tissues (Photograph - Dan Clark/USFWS/AP)

Birds ingest plastic that leads to damage to internal organs, causes gut blockage or chemical build-ups in tissues (Photograph – Dan Clark/USFWS/AP)

Plastic pollution has the potential to cause the worst damage to seabirds in the seas around Aotearoa New Zealand, where many of them come to feed and breed.

Aotearoa boasts the greatest diversity of seabirds in the world. Of the 360 global seabird species, 86 breed here and 37 are endemic, which means they breed nowhere else.

Some 90 percent of New Zealand’s seabirds are threatened with extinction. They (and many other marine species) are under pressure from pollution, climate change, and overexploitation of marine resources. Plastic pollution could be the final nail in the coffin for many seabirds that are already struggling for survival.

Plastic – not so fantastic

Every week, another grotesque story illustrates the impact of plastic in the environment. A whale was recently found with 80 plastic bags in its stomach – it died, of course. One-third of marine turtles have died or become ill due to plastic ingestion in Aotearoa New Zealand.

A 2015 study suggested that 99% of seabirds would be ingesting plastic by 2050. The authors also predicted that seabirds in our backyard, the Tasman Sea (Te Tai o Rēhua) would be the hardest hit, because of the high densities of seabirds foraging in the region, and the overlap with plastic. This not that surprising, given that the earliest observations of Aotearoa’s seabirds ingesting plastic go back to 1958.

Sentinels of ocean plastic pollution

Seabirds are particularly vulnerable to ingesting plastics because most species feed at or near the ocean surface. They forage along eddies and oceanic convergence zones – the same areas where marine plastics accumulate. The impacts of plastic on seabirds and other marine wildlife include death by entanglement. Ingested plastic can inhibit a bird’s feeding capacity, leading to starvation or internal ulcers, and eventually death.

Flesh-footed shearwater populations in Aotearoa may have declined up to 50 percent to around 12,000 pairs since the 1980s, and have gone extinct at some of their Hauraki Gulf breeding sites. These declines continue in spite of predator eradication and an end to harvesting on many of the islands where they breed.

Autopsies of birds caught in fisheries in Aotearoa’s waters show flesh-footed and sooty shearwaters are more likely to contain plastic fragments than other species. Plastic fragments found in New Zealand flesh-footed shearwater colonies showed a linear relationship between the number of nest burrows and plastic fragments, indicating that plastic ingestion may be a driver in their population decline.

Toxic plastic soup

In Australia, up to 100% of flesh-footed shearwater fledglings contained plastic, the highest reported for any marine vertebrate. Fledglings with high levels of ingested plastic exhibited reduced body condition and increased contaminant loads.

The chemical structure of plastics means that they act as toxin sponges, attracting harmful contaminants from the surrounding seawater, including persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals. When an animal ingests plastic, there is the potential for those toxic chemicals to leach into its tissues.

Chemicals such as PCBs and flame retardants that are added to plastics during manufacture have been found in seabird tissue around the Pacific. High concentrations of toxic chemicals can retard growth, reduce reproductive fitness and, ultimately, kill.

Sooty shearwater (tītī) chicks, which are harvested and consumed by Māori in Aotearoa, have a high potential for ingesting plastic, given evidence of plastic ingestion in shearwaters from Australia and anecdotal evidence from harvesters on Stewart Island (Rakiura). The closely related short-tailed shearwater, which breeds in Australia, has also been shown to consume plastic. In one study, 96% of chicks contained plastics in their stomachs and chemical loads in their tissue.

Ocean health and human health

Few, if any, studies have specifically looked at contaminant loads derived from plastics in any species of seabird in Aotearoa. However, Elizabeth Bell from Wildlife Management International is now collecting samples of preen glands, fat and liver tissue for analysis of toxic chemicals in bycatch birds found with plastic inside them. This research is crucial to understanding the implications of the transfer of toxins to people from harvested species that ingest plastic.

Seabirds are the sentinels of ocean health. They tell us what we can’t always see about the health of the oceans and its resources that we rely on.

Plastics are sold to us on the perceived benefits of strength, durability and inexpensive production. These qualities are now choking our oceans.

In a few decades, we have produced an estimated 8.3 billion tonnes. The expedited pace of production has not been met with adequate waste management and recycling capacity to deal with it all. As a result, an estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic pollute the environment each year.

Global production of plastics is doubling every 11 years. It is predicted to be an order of magnitude greater than current production level by 2040. The time is ripe for the initiation of an international agreement to lessen plastic pollution in the world’s oceans and save our seabirds and marine wildlife. (The Conversation)

World’s biggest king penguin colony shrinks by 90 percent —

1982 picture shows a two-million-strong king penguin colony on Ile aux Cochon (Picture -  Henri WeimerskirchFrench National Centre for Scientific Research (Source AFP)

1982 picture shows a two-million-strong king penguin colony on Ile aux Cochon (Picture – Henri WeimerskirchFrench National Centre for Scientific Research (Source AFP)

The planet’s largest colony of king penguins has declined by nearly 90 percent in three decades, alarmed researchers said on Monday (30 July 2018).

The last time scientists set foot on France’s remote Ile aux Cochons – roughly half way between the tip of Africa and Antarctica – the island was blanketed by two million of the flightless birds, which stand about a metre (three feet) tall.

But recent satellite images and photos taken from helicopters, show the population has collapsed, with barely 200,000 remaining, according to a study published in Antarctic Science.

King penguins are home bodies. While adults will set to sea for days at a time foraging for food, the species does not migrate.

Why the colony on Ile aux Cochon has been so decimated remains a mystery.

“It is completely unexpected, and particularly significant since this colony represented nearly one third of the king penguins in the world,” said lead author Henri Weimerskirch, an ecologist at the Centre for Biological Studies in Chize, France, who first set eyes on the colony in 1982.

Climate change may play a role

In 1997, a particularly strong El Nino weather event warmed the southern Indian Ocean, temporarily pushing the fish and squid on which king penguins depend south, beyond their foraging range.

“This resulted in population decline and poor breeding success” for all king penguin colonies in the region, Weimerskirch said.

El Nino’s are cyclical events that occur every two to seven years. But they can be amplified by global warming, which itself produces many of the same results, albeit on a longer timescale.

Indeed, Weimerskirch and colleagues showed in an earlier study that climate change, on its current trajectory, will likely make the Iles Crozet – the archipelago that contains Ile aux Cochon – unviable for king penguins by mid-century.

Migration is not an option because there are no other suitable islands within striking range. Other factors may be contributing to the decline of the Ile aux Cochon colony, including overcrowding.

One egg at a time

“The larger the population, the fiercer the competition between individuals,” noted a statement from France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, which funded the study.

“The repercussions of lack of food are thus amplified and can trigger an unprecedented rapid and drastic drop in numbers.”

But this so-called “density-dependent effect” can also be made worse by climate change, the study notes.

Another possible culprit is avian cholera, which has affected seabirds on nearby Marion and Amsterdam Islands, including some king penguins.

But until Weimerskirch and other researchers return to Ile aux Cochons – hopefully, he said, in early 2019 – they won’t know for sure.

It is also possible that invasive species such as rats, mice or cats, have found their way onto the island.

The Red List of Threatened Species conservation status for king penguins is currently “least concern,” but the new data may prompt a re-evaluation.

King penguins are the second-largest penguin species after the Emperors. They do not make a nest, but rather lay one egg at a time and carry it around on their feet covered with a flap of abdominal skin, called a brood patch.

Parents take turns incubating the egg, switching every couple of weeks over a two-month period.

There are two sub-species of kings. Aptenodytes patagonica patagonicus inhabits the Falklands and South Georgia Island, while Aptenodytes patagonica halli resides in the southernmost reaches of Indian Ocean and South Pacific. (AFP News)

Crows ‘reverse engineer’ tools from memory: study —

New Caledonian Crow

New Caledonian Crow

New Caledonian crows (Corvus moneduloides) use mental pictures to twist twigs into hooks and make other tools, according to a provocative study that suggests the notoriously clever birds pass on successful designs to future generations, a hallmark of culture.

“We find evidence for a specific type of emulation we call mental template matching,” co-author Alex Taylor, director of the Language, Cognition and Culture Lab at the University of Aukland, told AFP.

“Put simply, crows can reverse engineer tool designs using only a mental image of that tool.”

A long-simmering debate among evolutionary biologists asks how much of the crow’s tool-making ability is genetically programmed, and how much is acquired and transmitted through learning and memory.

A famous experiment filmed in 2002 featuring “Betty the crow” showed the bird bending a straight piece of wire into a hook in order to retrieve a morsel of meat stuffed in a narrow plastic tube.

The feat was hailed as proof that the New Caledonian crow could invent new tools on the spot, a rare ability among non-human animals.

But a study published a dozen years later found that more than a dozen wild-caught crows also broke off small branches and fashioned them into tiny hooks with their beaks, leading some researchers to conclude this ability is at least partly hardwired.

To the extent it is learnt, there’s a further split: some experts think the birds are mimicking witnessed techniques, and others – including Taylor – say the crows have a more sophisticated approach.

The distinction is comparable to two methods for making a paper plane.

“You can follow a list of directions – fold in the middle, then the corners, etc.”, said Taylor.

Culturally transmitted

“Or you could have an image in your mind of what you want the airplane to look like at the end, and work to that goal.”

To remove lingering ambiguity, Taylor and colleagues captured eight wild crows and trained them to drop variously sized bits of paper into a vending machine in order to retrieve rewards.

In the second part of the experiment, the birds – when given large cards – tore them up to create pieces similar in size and shape to those that had earned them goodies.

“The crows were able to recreate tool designs without a reference point – there was no tool they could see when making a ‘tool’ from the card,” Taylor said.

The only way the birds could have reproduced the objects is by having a “mental template of the tool design in their mind.”

Indeed, New Caledonian crows do not appear to imitate, or play close attention to the tool building of other birds in the wild.

But that does not mean that the tools they design cannot be culturally transmitted, Taylor insisted.

“Cumulative cultural evolution is the natural selection of ideas – we copy the best ideas and then modify them,” he explained.

“Some of these modifications work, some don’t, and the best ones are then copied and passed on.” (AFP)