Essential Role of Parents in the Cognitive Development of Some Animals

“It takes a village to raise a child.” This African proverb is very pertinent to talk about animals, according to Michael Griesser, researcher at the Department of Biology at the University of Konstanz (Germany). Many species, like humans, need to be surrounded by parents or relatives to develop a better cognitive system, greater behavior plasticity, or, in other words, more intelligence. This is reminiscent of a recent study published in Philosophical Transactions that has collected data on corvids, one of the smartest bird families known for their numerical perception.. One of the analysis’ suggestions is that long-term parental presence is closely associated with increased neuron density in the brain of some chicks that promote their abilities, although more research is lacking in natural settings and on other species.

The aim of Natalie Uomini, lead author of the paper and researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, was to underline the importance of the role of parents and their interaction with young in their development. The experts compared the behavior of two species that, despite being from the same family ( Corvidae) , live in very different conditions: the Siberian jay, which is used to the very cold climate of Sweden and to living in the snow, and the crow. New Caledonia, prone to living in the rain forest. “What surprised us the most,” the two researchers related by video call, “is that these two birds had so much in common.” “When you look at it from a distance, they both use the same mechanism,” they say.

It is clear to Griesser that the environment also provides learning opportunities, an aspect that applies to many species. “But the longer the specimens stay with their parents, the longer they will have a safe social environment and bases for cultural training with no other concerns than that. The link between parents and our own historical evolution is much stronger than we think “, insists the expert.

Elephant memory

Both the crow and the jay are considered intelligent species, that is, with adaptability, learning and survival. They stay up to four years old following in the footsteps of their parents and the two birds have a relatively large brain and can, for example, Build tools to look for insects in trees, just like elephants do with branches. These mammals are a reference for the scientific community for living as a family, such as dolphins or killer whales. Uomini confirms this and adds that they have an “enormous” brain and an “incredible” memory. “Elephants also have very long parental care and lots of social interactions, which can also have an effect on their mental development.

On elephants, Daniel Sol Rueda, an expert in animal cognitive development at the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) at CREAF , talks about a “typical example of a vital strategy in which intelligence is important”. This mammal has a very slow development and spends a lot of time with its mother . During this period, you learn to distinguish a wide variety of foods. “He knows which leaves are good and which are toxic,” says Sol. Mothers also have to teach little elephants how and where to drink water. “They live in savannahs, in desert areas, where water is very scarce. They have to travel a lot to find it and they perfectly know the places where it is found, ”he adds.

Long life and viable strategy

The Spanish researcher explains that this development of skills is due to the long existence of the species in question: “By having a long life, they have more time to learn. In addition, they expose themselves to changes and have to learn to face them ”. The researcher assures that something similar happens with the human being. “The cost of learning is offset by use. What allows the large brain, the number of neurons and the ability to learn is to protect ourselves from the environment, “he says.

For Alex Richter-Boix, biologist with a doctorate in evolutionary ecology and scientific disseminator at CREAF, the fact that there are other organisms that follow the same evolutionary process shows that intelligence is not something “so special”, but rather a viable strategy. “Caring for the young for a long time is a strong bet. The animal decreases its descent rate, but in the end, they are individuals who survive much better and who know how to adapt more, ”she says.

Cetaceans follow this bet to transmit skills to their offspring. Anastasia Krasheninnikova, from the Max-Planck Comparative Cognition Research Group in Tenerife, explains that the offspring have a long and strong bond with the older specimens in their family. This time allows them to learn, in a wide variability of possible scenarios, from sophisticated foraging tactics (as seen in dolphins and killer whales) to group-specific vocalizations. “Such prolonged upbringing goes beyond the continued guardianship of mothers. The oldest females in the group, the grandmothers , transmit their experiences to the next generations or help with additional assistance, an extremely rare phenomenon in animals ”, adds the expert on cetaceans.

However, there are possibilities outside the family environment. Dolphins can break the umbilical cord with their mother or grandparents and continue learning. A new study published in Current Biology shows that the Shark Bay dolphin in Western Australia learns feeding techniques (the use of shells in particular) by observing its mates, which expands and varies its capabilities.

Mowgli’s theory

What happens when parents educate a calf of another species? Which is more powerful: genetics, the social environment or parental care? Richter-Boix assures that there are still no certainties in this regard. “The organism is not a DNA fragment in a bottle, but it is exposed in an environment and that gives the phenotype, that is, what you are,” he replies. The specialist emphasizes that the offspring far from their biological parents begin to behave like the group that educates them, but it depends on the species. “There are simpler animals that bet on instincts, which are like genetic machines and work well; the environment does not affect them as much. On the other hand, there are others that bet on intelligence and the environment plays a lot, ”he says.

Faced with this question, researcher Uomini tells a curious experiment: scientists isolated some eggs from a crow. The young began to use tools, but were unable to manufacture them as their parents did. “That indicates that using tools is genetic, but not manufacturing. It is an innate ability, but it takes learning and mimicry to do what we see in nature, “she says. In another 2006 study , researchers collected blue tit and tit eggs and changed nests to see what was happening. The young developed the behavior of both their parents and that of their ancestors. “That simply showed that the two parts are important,” concludes Sol, the CSIC researcher.

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