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Probing the limits of flexible tool use in kea (Nestor notabilis)

Research questions: Understanding the cognitive mechanisms underlying tool use has been a long-standing focus of comparative psychology. Such studies often use pass-fail criteria to reveal human-like abilities such as insight or causal reasoning; as a result, we know little about how tool-using behaviour is modulated by other cognitive or contextual factors such as memory, attention and task complexity. The purpose of this project is to investigate the role of these different factors on problem solving performance to gain insight into some of the key similarities and differences in human and nonhuman material culture. The project focuses on three areas which are critical to human tool use, and which we still know relatively little about in other species: flexibility, creating second-order object relations and seeking information about tool functionality. It uses the kea parrot, a large-brained parrot species which has demonstrated remarkable technical intelligence in previous studies, as a model species to answer several key questions: (i) what are the cognitive constraints of flexible tool use? (ii) how do kea learn about and create second-order relationships between objects? (iii) do kea actively seek information about the functionality of potential tools? Scientific/scholarly innovation of the project: This project takes important steps toward deconstructing the various factors that may facilitate or constrain tool use in different contexts, an approach which has been suggested but not yet been widely adopted. Identifying the basic elements of physical problem solving and their impact on task performance has significant implications for how we design and interpret future studies of animal cognition, ultimately allowing for more informed comparisons of physical cognition across species, including between humans and other animals. The project also introduces new methods and a novel paradigm which may be adapted for further comparative work with additional species. Methods to be used: Study 1: Kea will be presented with several tool-use tasks that impose different demands on attention, memory and representation to determine the extent to which flexible tool use is impacted by these factors. Study 2: Subjects will be given a new puzzle box where they can learn how different pieces of the box move and interact with one another, and then use this information to create relationships between the objects to solve a problem. Study 3: Kea will be given a choice between two objects that look identical but function differently to solve a task (e.g., one is heavier than the other) to determine whether they explore the objects to learn about their functionality in different contexts.Researchers involved: The main researchers responsible for the project are Dr. Megan Lambert (primary applicant) and Professor Ludwig Huber (co-applicant).
Probing the limits of flexible tool use in kea
Project leader
Lambert Megan
Huber Ludwig
FWF Lise-Meitner Stipendium
Type of Research
Basic research
Vetmed Research Units
Messerli Research Institute, Comparative Cognition
Funded by
FWF - Fonds zur Förderung der wissenschaftlichen Forschung, Wien, Austria

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3 Publications

Lambert, PJ; Stiegler, A; Rössler, T; Lambert, ML; Auersperg, AMI (2021): Goffin's cockatoos discriminate objects based on weight alone. Biol Lett. 2021; 17(9):20210250
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Colbourne, JAD; Auersperg, AMI; Lambert, ML; Huber, L; Völter, CJ (2021): Extending the Reach of Tooling Theory: A Neurocognitive and Phylogenetic Perspective. Top Cogn Sci. 2021; 13(4):548-572
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Völter, CJ; Lambert, ML; Huber, L (2020): Do nonhumans seek explanations? Animal Behavior and Cognition 2020; 7(3): 445-451.
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