New Research Explores Learning and Memory in Ducklings

Posted by TF Oren

Sure, ducklings are cute. But did you know they're smart, too?

When ducklings hatch, they immediately imprint on someone or something, usually their mother. Imprinting is a form of learning that happens early on in an animal's life. It is a critical period in which an animal forms attachments and gains a sense of its species identity.

Researchers from the University of Oxford set out to learn more about the cognitive abilities of ducklings with respect to the act of imprinting. In particular, the researchers sought to determine whether newly hatched ducklings imprinted based on memory, or based on an ability to distinguish the qualities of objects. In other words, they wanted to know if the ducklings could process the concepts of "same" and "different."

For this study, the researchers placed the hatchlings in an enclosure. The enclosure contained either a set of identical red shapes, or a set of mismatched shapes. The shapes were attached to strings that moved them around in circles.

The ducklings imprinted on the shapes in their enclosure and followed them around. The researchers then gave the animals a break. Following the break, they placed the ducklings in another enclosure, which contained two objects, either identical or different, circling around. These were novel shapes that the ducklings had not yet seen.

Mallard Mother Duck with her Ducklings on a lake

The researchers found that 32 of the study's 47 hatchlings honed in on and began following the pair of shapes that matched the relationship of the ones they had initially imprinted on (i.e. a pair of the same shapes or a pair of different shapes).

In a repeat of the experiment, researchers studied 66 new hatchlings using the two-phase test. Once again, 45 of the 66 attached themselves to the objects that matched the relationship of the pair they imprinted on in phase one.

Watch this experiment in action:

Antone Martinho, a doctoral student at Oxford, and the study's first author, says that this cognitive ability in day-old ducklings is a biological necessity.

"If the ducklings just had a visual 'snapshot' of their mother, they would lose her. They need to be able to flexibly and reliably identify her, and a library of concepts and characteristics describing her is a much more efficient way to do so, compared with a visual memory of every possible configuration of the mother and her environment."

Want to learn more? You can read the study here.

What do you think? Did you know ducklings were so smart? Tell us in the comments below. 

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New Research Explores Learning and Memory in Ducklings