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Are You As Smart As A Raven?

A new study shows ravens can plan ahead and exert self control, like humans and great apes. Can you?

Being able to plan ahead is crucial to being human. A new study out today in the journal Science today shows that ravens can do it too.

Piotr Krzeslak / Getty Images

The paper details four different experiments that scientists used to put the ravens through their paces, but we’ll just test you on one of them.

Ready to see if you're up to the task? Answer the first question, and the next step will appear.

The test above is similar to one ravens in this study completed, and got right the majority of the time.

Can Kabadayi and Mathias Osvath / Via Science

Scientists tested whether ravens could make decisions for an event 15 minutes in the future, and for one as much as 17 hours in the future. They also tested their self control – whether the ravens were willing to forgo an immediate reward for a bigger one in the future – over two different time periods.

To make sure their results weren't just applicable to one situation, each of the four different set ups was tested using tool use – where the ravens could select a tool they'd later be able to use to get a reward – and with bartering – where they could select a token they'd later be able to trade in for a reward from a human.

So, just like in the quiz above, in the first tool use experiment, the ravens were shown a box with a reward, but had no tool they could use to get the reward out. "They get frustrated because they can't open the box," Dr Mathias Osvath, a cognitive zoologist at Lund University, Sweden, and author of the study told BuzzFeed News.

Later they're led to a place where they get to select an object. One of the objects is the tool they can use to open the box, the others are just distractions that will not.

The ravens had seen the tool and the distractions the day before, and learned then that the tool opens the box.

And an average of 11 out of 14 times – just less than 80% of the time – the ravens chose the tool rather than one of the distractions. The other experiments had similar success rates. They solved the tasks in a very similar way to great apes, says Osvath. "If you looked at the data, you'd say a raven is like an ape," he added.

These results show that ravens can plan ahead for different types of events.

It also shows that they can exercise self control, and that they take time into account when deciding whether to take an immediate reward or wait for a better one. "They are much better [at self control] when they know the reward will come very soon," says Osvath – just like humans are.

"This is a long-wanted study showing that ravens have not mainly specialised in highly sophisticated social but also physical cognitive skills," Dr Simone Pika, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany, who didn't work on the study, told BuzzFeed News, adding that she'd like to now see a comprehensive test of the cognitive skills of ravens and others in the crow family to help us work out how they differ from each other, and how those skills might have come about.

Ravens diverged from primates in evolutionary terms 320 million years ago, so this ability must have evolved separately. "Otherwise you would find this in all reptiles, birds, and mammals. It's very unusual,” says Osvath.

"The question is whether they evolved to do this specifically, or whether it's just a thing that happens to work together in a good way but actually evolved for other reasons,” he added. “We don't know that."

  1. So did you pass the task and prove you're as smart as a raven?

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