Goffin Research


The innovation problem: factors influencing innovative tool use in human infants and cockatoos

Goldegg Goffin Lab

Behavioural innovations allow humans and animals to solve novel challenges and to create new opportunities. Tool innovations are particularly useful for amplifying access to environmental resources and have had an important role in human technical evolution. While children are proficient tool users from the age of two, they show a surprising inability to innovate new tools until they are eight years old. The reasons for this phenomenon are poorly understood, yet greatly important for our understanding of human cognitive architecture in the technical domain.

Tool innovation is not restricted to humans but is also found in other taxa: recent research on children was motivated by studies on birds. Goffin's cockatoos are outstanding tool innovators that lack obvious inherited predispositions for using objects as instruments. Studying the capacity for tool innovation in a species distantly related to us will expand our knowledge on its mechanisms and origins.
The proposed project will combine knowledge from developmental psychology and animal cognition to investigate the mechanisms and ontogenetic development of tool innovation in humans and Goffins. We will investigate motivational systems (exploration strategies, play) as well as cognitive means for innovative tool modification/manufacture and combinations of more than one tool. We will test specific hypothesis drawing on known similarities and differences. 


PI: Alice Auersperg; Co-PIs: Sarah Beck; Sabine Tebbich
Project participants: Antonio Osuna-Mascaro; Poppy Lambert; Jennifer Colbourne
Running time: May 2019 – July 2022
Funded by: WWTF Wiener Wissenschaft und Technologiefund.




Goldegg Goffin Lab

Innovations, new behaviours that promptly appear in a population are important factors contributing to the problem solving abilities of many animals and are widely believed to be closely linked to high-level cognitive processing. Species with so-called ‘general intelligence’, showing high flexibility in a broad range of different problem solving tasks can be considered particularly interesting candidates for studying innovative problem solving. In this program, we use the Goffin’s cockatoo to study a number of important aspects of innovative behaviour. We apply two batteries of tasks to study the influence of individual learning mechanisms as well as individual traits (such as sex, status and personality) on innovation rate and to uncover possible strategies underlying innovation. In this respect we are also specifically interested in whether innovations appear in the animals’ repertoire while actively seeking solutions to given problems or through accidental discoveries of solutions.  
Within a second line of research we proceed to apply innovation tasks requiring advanced physical intelligence that have previously been addressed in adaptive specialists (eg. Habitual tool users). The first is a hook-bending task, an example of innovative tool manufacture, while the second is a sequential tool use task, an example of associative tool behaviour. Both tasks have previously been largely applied to species with possible ecological predispositions for handling tools (tool use and/or nest construction), which are lacking in the Goffin’s cockatoo.

Project leader: Alice Auersperg
Project participants: upcoming
Running time: October 2016 - September 2019
Funded by: FWF the Austrian Science Fund.




Tool Manufacture

Goldegg Goffin Lab

In this project we confront our subjects with set of controlled problem solving experiments featuring different foraging problems and different materials for making tools: We will study the animals' flexibility and goal directedness as well as the appreciation of functionality when making a tool in order to determine to what extent their performance meets the criteria for flexible, 'intelligent' tool manufacture. We additionally analyse cost evaluation involved in manufactured tools by looking at tool 'safekeeping'.

The project will help us to understand how events of innovative tool manufacture can originate outside primates and ultimately widen our scope and enhance our knowledge on the role of innovation in the formation of tool related abilities.

Project leader: Alice Auersperg
Project participants: Mark O'Hara (Technician), Andreas Auersperg (Technician); upcoming
Running time: April 2016 - March 2019
Funded by: FWF the Austrian Science Fund.




Cognitive ecology of Goffin's cockatoos

Tanimbar Goffin Lab

The Goffin's cockatoo (Cacatua goffiniana) is a species naturally only occurring on the Tanimbar Islands in Indonesia. This species has exhibited advanced cognitive skills in previous studies conducted in captivity, including the ability to flexibly manufacture and use tools in order to access food items. However, very little is known about this interesting species in their natural environment. To reveal which factors contribute to the evolution of such 'seemingly' sophisticated behaviours, we are planning to investigate, as a first step, the diet and behaviour of wild Goffin’s cockatoos in Indonesia.

One reason for the evolution of advanced cognitive abilities may be linked to the great variety of food sources, with some items being more complex to handle. We are planning to examine and compare the relation of isotopes found in food items with the proportion of isotopes that are incorporated in feathers, we will be able to estimate the dietary composition of this species.

Another factor contributing to advanced problem-solving capacities may be experience gained through unrewarded object manipulations during object play. We will investigate precursors of functional behaviour in specially designed tasks to acquire a better understanding of how flexible tool use might arise from object play and possibly reveal the cognitive mechanisms involved.

Finally, the abilities we have observed in captive setting may be promoted by spare time that otherwise has to be spent finding food or evading predators in the wild. Thus, we plan to directly compare how wild Goffin's cockatoos fare in cognitive tasks corresponding to those conducted in captivity. If we find similar performances in wild living individuals, we might conclude that these capacities cannot be solely attributed to the captive setting.

Project leader: Mark O'Hara
Project participants: Berenika Mioduszewska 6, Tri Haryoko 7, Dewi Prawiradilaga 8, Arisitde Parisod, Melissa Sebilleau, Alice Auersperg 9, Ludwig Huber 10
Running time: September 2018 - September 2021
Funded by: FWF the Austrian Science Fund (Project number: J 4169)


Goffin Lab