The clever games: avian contestants compete against each other in an Innovation Arena

27.05.2020: Scientists at the Vetmeduni Vienna and of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences developed a new approach to compare innovativeness. Who performs better: wild or captive parrots?

Important ingredients in Mother Nature’s recipe for the evolution of intelligence are complexities in an animal’s social and physical environment that cannot simply be overcome with specialized adaptions, such as having a particularly long tongue or a strong beak. In order to survive in complex unpredictable surroundings, one has to be able to react to any type of situation at hand and become an inventive problem solver. Innovation rate is thus widely believed to be an important predictor of animal intelligence.

Researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna and of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences developed a new approach for directly studying innovation rate in animals by letting them compete one by one in a so-called ‘Innovation Arena’. Here, individuals of different groups face an Arena in a semi-cycle shape built out of a selection of 20 different puzzle boxes that each required distinct actions in order to allow access to a tasty food reward inside. Each animal contestant is given a limited amount of time to retrieve as many rewards as it can before having to leave. The next time it will be permitted to enter the freshly rebaited Arena, it will face the same puzzle boxes arranged in a different order. The loop continues until a contestant either finds all or no more new solutions. This allows the researchers not only to compare the two competing ‘teams’ in their innovation rate over time by studying how many puzzles the animals discover over several testing bouts but also to look at task or location specific preferences.

The Innovation Arena was now applied for the first time to study the so-called ‘captivity effect’ on animal intelligence in cockatoos. The captivity effect assumes higher innovative capacity in long term captive animals as opposed to their wild counterparts due to close proximity to humans and a largely artificial environment.

The Goffin’s cockatoo is a parrot that has already proved highly intelligent and skillful in their technical problem-solving abilities up to the point of being able to make their own tools to rake food into reach!

Nevertheless, most studies on this species have been conducted on European bred animals while the species is originally endemic to the small Tanimbar archipelago in Moluccas, Indonesia.

The researchers now let wild birds from Tanimbar and captive birds from Austria compete against each other in a long-distance match within the Innovation Arena. “We found that individual birds were either very eager to interact with the puzzle boxes and to solve the problems or reluctant to do so.” says Berenika Mioduszewska who tested wild birds in Indonesia at Goffin Lab Tanimbar. “Although none of the birds was afraid of the setup, less wild than captive birds showed interest in interacting with the Arena. Nevertheless, the wild birds that were motivated discovered solutions at the same rate as the long-term captive players, ultimately tackling the majority of puzzles within the Arena”.

“To us scientists this ultimately means that the difference between team ‘wildling’ and team ‘domestic’ in this experiment is one in motivation rather than in their overall cognitive capacity to solve the problems which seems to be similar in both groups. In other words: The wild birds are perfectly capable to match with the captive birds – if they want to.” explains Alice Auersperg, the head of Goffin Lab Goldegg, Austria. The researchers suspect that when it comes to technical innovations, a natural situation, such as a tropical island with its many unpredictable and seasonal resources, may ultimately be an even more cognitively challenging than long-term proximity to humans.

“Interestingly, the two groups also showed parallels in which types of task they found easier or more difficult” continues Theresa Rössler who tested birds in Austria.

For example, they both seemed to have troubles with some tasks that required several repetitive actions, such as biting through toilet paper or turning a mill, but not with others, such as turning a flat disk in a task requiring ‘DJ’-like movement. However, we found a difference in one of the twenty tasks: The captive birds did outperform the wild birds in the ‘Button’ task that required the animals to bluntly press a bolt to push the reward off a platform. We think this difference can be explained by previous experience of captive birds as they participated in studies in which they had to use sticks as probing tools. This highlights the importance of using a multitude of puzzles, like in the Arena, to compare different groups because results of a single task might cause researches to jump to wrong conclusions about the differences they are investigating.” she adds.

The team now plans to boost the competition for the clever birds by testing various distantly related yet large brained animals, such as corvids, primates, and even human infants in the same Arena.

The Article "Using an Innovation Arena to compare wild-caught and laboratory Goffin´s cockatoos​" by Theresa Rössler, Berenika Mioduszewska, Mark O’Hara, Ludwig Huber, Dewi Prawiradilaga and Alice Auersperg was published in Scientific Reports. 1


Scientific Contact

Theresa Rössler

Messerli - Research Institute

University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna (Vetmeduni Vienna)

E-Mail to Theresa Rössler


Berenika Mioduszewska

Messerli - Research Institute

University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna (Vetmeduni Vienna)

E-Mail to Berenika Mioduszewska


Alice Auersperg

Messerli - Research Institute

University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna (Vetmeduni Vienna)

T +43 676 939 0392

E-Mail to Alice Auersperg​​​​​​​


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