Scrub jays scrub breakfast

1 minute read

This is interesting:

Scientists had previously placed the skill of "future-planning" into the exclusively human category. Recent studies have revealed some planning smarts in primates such as apes, but most other animals were perceived as only capable of putting their immediate needs on center stage.

Nicola Clayton et al. rigged it so that some scrub jays had a diet that was predictable in certain ways:

On alternate mornings for six days, eight scrub jays experienced one of two compartments. In one compartment, the birds were always given breakfast, and in the other they were not.
In the evening, after this training period, the scientists allowed the birds to feast freely on pine nuts, which are suitable for hoarding. The birds planned for a breakfast-free morning by hiding much more food in the bare compartment compared with the "breakfast" one. The prudent squirreling away reveals an understanding of future needs, the researchers say.
In a similar experiment, the scrub jays hung out in either a compartment with peanuts or one with dog kibble on alternate mornings. After several days, the birds were allowed to travel between compartments. This time the forward thinkers planned for a balanced diet and buried peanuts in the kibble enclosure and kibble in the peanut compartment.


1. There are plenty of people willing to argue that Neandertals couldn't do this kind of planning. That's clearly wrong -- planning isn't all that difficult under the right informational circumstances. The birds surely aren't alone, although their caching behavior does prime them for diet-relating planning.

2. Here, the utility of planning is not only to ensure adequate total food intake, but also to enable a better balance of different foods. From the standpoint of nutritional ecology, it makes sense that an animal would be adapted to plan its activities to broaden diet, where possible. This also is very relevant to early hominids.