Crows faced with fear of novelty

Zoology. Curiosity is a bad thing. In animals, it can even be dangerous, even fatal. Swallowing an unknown substance or approaching an unknown object present obvious dangers. But, conversely, daring can lead to widening an ecological niche, bringing in new resources and even developing an individual’s cognitive capacities. In a period of great threat to wildlife, the stakes appear to be major. So much so that across the world, many zoologists study what they call neophobia, the fear of novelty.

This property seems almost universally present in the animal kingdom. But the researchers’ observations had so far remained essentially monographic, with the exception of a few comparisons between pairs of species, or two larger studies on parrots and ungulates.

Nicola Clayton’s team at Cambridge University set out to test ten species of corvids, from the black-crowned blue magpie to the common raven, including the black crow, the pinewood jay. or the crow of New Caledonia, undisputed prince of the handling of tools. Why these dark birds? “Crows are known to be both very neophobic and very intelligent”, explains Rachael Miller, researcher in Nicola Clayton’s team and the first signatory of the study, published Nov. 18, in the journal Current Biology.

To conduct this endeavor, the British team used ten laboratories in as many countries, all with groups of animals living in captivity. Each recruited about twenty birds and invited them to sit at the table, but in two distinct situations: either their usual food was offered to them alone, or it was accompanied by another food, new this one, or so of an unknown object. As expected, all of them hesitated before going to feast, a more marked effect with the object than with the unexpected food. At the second presentation, same latency time. But from the third presentation, the birds get closer or find their cruising speed. Cautious, then, but not stupid.

Sociobiological factors

Above all, not all of them have marked a latency period of the same duration. Faced with a new object, the alala, an extremely rare Hawaiian crow, is the most hesitant. At the other end of the spectrum, the big-billed crow, spread across Asia to the cities, barely stops. Why these differences?

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