If you’re unkind to certain Antarctic birds, you’ll find that after a couple of years they’ll still hold a grudge. That’s because, as a recent study reveals, some Antarctic birds can recognize individual humans. So much for turning over a new “feather.”
Science Daily quotes a study published in Animal Cognition by the Laboratory of Behavioral Ecology and Evolution at Seoul National University. According to the group’s findings, birds known as brown skuas revealed themselves to have a special (and often frustrating) quality. These Antarctic birds live in the some of the most remote places on Earth. As such, contact with humans is hardly a regular occurrence.
Despite this, South Korean scientists found that brown skuas were able to recognize the individual humans who “had previously accessed [their] nests to measure their eggs and nestlings.” This capability proved to be a nasty surprise for certain researchers.
Inha University Ph.D. student Yeong-Deok Han explained, “I had to defend myself against the skuas’ attack.”
“When I was with other researchers, the birds flew over me and tried to hit me. Even when I changed my field clothes, they followed me. The birds seemed to know me no matter what I wear.”
It was clear the brown skuas had it in for those individuals they’d already deemed a threat. To be sure that it wasn’t merely a coincidence, researchers would walk in pairs. One member of the pair was a “nest intruder” and the other was just a neutral, non-intrusive scientist. The two researchers would then head off in opposite directions. Without fail, the several pairs of skua parents would go after the intruder every time.
It was clear no amount of clothing changes would spare hapless researchers from the wrath of these “angry birds.”
Won Young Lee of the Korea Polar Research Institute admitted in a press release that the phenomenon among these Antarctic animals was “amazing.”
“It is amazing that brown skuas, which evolved and lived in human-free habitats, recognized individual humans just after 3 or 4 visits. It seems that they have very high levels of cognitive abilities.”
How is it that a species which evolved to live free of humans — who’ve steadily increased their presence in the Antarctic since the 1950s — can tell one individual from another with so little interaction?
There’s no clear explanation, but one popular suggestion is that the attacks are based “on visual cues.” UPI reports the researchers have only been stationed in the Antarctic location for a short time. Lee states that he’s confident the brown skuas will continue to acquire “discriminatory abilities” during the brief period they’re in contact with humans.
Although impressive, the ability to recognize and form impressions about individual men and women is not something unique to these remote animals. Scientists are already aware that certain bird species such as magpies, crows, and mockingbirds can also tell one person from another. What’s interesting is that the brown skuas would even have these capabilities similar to birds that regularly come into contact with human beings.
The reaction of the angry skua parents only serves to prove that humans’ understanding of animal evolution needs constant improvement. Just because birds don’t spend their time near people doesn’t always mean they aren’t capable of telling a perceived friend from a perceived foe. Perhaps these researchers can also perform experiments to determine how to get back into the good graces of these feisty Antarctic birds.
The South Korean scientists were good enough to share video footage of their experiments, which can seen in the YouTube video below.