14 January 2020

Parallels between humans and birds

Studying the evolution of collaboration in humans in birds

Learning something about the evolution of human behavior by watching birds. It may seem far-fetched, but behavioural biologist Jorg Massen of Utrecht University thinks that in certain respects it is more informative than looking at apes.

Two ravens preening. Picture: Jorg Massen

Research by behavioural biologist Jorg Massen and others shows that there are quite a few similarities between birds and humans. For example, ravens can cooperate very well with each other and blue magpies like to do something for someone else. In this month's scientific journal Ethology, Massen brings his own work and that of international colleagues together as a guest editor in a special edition that discusses only this theme.

The various studies in the issue show clear parallels between apes and the different bird species
Jorg Massen

The various studies in the issue show clear parallels between apes and the different bird species: from parrot species working together and wanting to do something for someone else, crows and ravens sharing information with each other, up to cockatoos who disagree when someone else doesn't have to do anything for a reward while they have to work hard for it. "So it seems that the different cognitive and emotional adjustments have evolved independently of each other at least twice. And, the complex social systems in which the tested parrots and crow-like birds live – similar to those in which humans and other primates live – may well be the reason why: in a complex social society it can help if you work together, whether you're a human being or a crow", says Massen.   

Evolutionary history

"If we find similarities between the behaviour of a chimpanzee and humans, we can assume that our common ancestor already exhibited that behaviour. And even though that tells us something about the evolutionary history of that behavior, it's difficult to find out why that behavior evolved in that ancestor”, Massen continues,“because we know little about that ancestor. By looking at animals that are evolutionarily far away from us, such as birds, we can see whether, in addition to the similarities in behaviour, like cooperation, there are also similarities in the (social) environment that can explain why it evolved independently in both lines. So, yes, by looking at birds we can learn a lot about the evolution of human behavior.”


Articles in the special issue of the scientific journal Ethology

Ethology, Special Issue: Studying the Evolution of Cooperation and Prosociality in Birds (online op 13 januari)

Studying the evolution of cooperation and prosociality in birds (editorial). Massen, J.J.M. (2020). Ethology, 126, 121-124. doi: 10.1111/eth.13001.

Tentative evidence for inequity aversion to unequal work-effort but not to unequal reward distribution in Goffin’e cockatoos. Laumer, I.B, Massen, J.J.M.*, Lorck-Tympner, M., Wakonig, B., Carminito, C. & Auersperg, A.M.I. (2020). Ethology, 126, 185-194. doi: 10.1111/eth.12947. * co-first authors.

Why preen others? Predictors of allopreening in parrots and corvids and comparisons to grooming in great apes. Morales Picard, A., Mundry, R., Auersperg, A.M., Boeving, E.R., Boucherie, P.M., Bugnyar, T, Dufour, V., Emery, N.J., Federspiel, I., Gajdon, G., Guéry, J.-P., Hegedič, M., Horn, L., Kavanagh, E., Lambert, M.L., Massen, J.J.M.*, Rodrigues, M., Schiestl, M., Schwing, R., Szabo, B., Taylor, A.H., van Horik, J.O., von Bayern, A.M.P., Seed, A, & Slocombe, K.E. (2020). Ethology, 126, 207-228. doi: 10.1111/eth.12999.

Food calling in ravens (Corvus corax) revisited: who is addressed? Sierro, J., Loretto, M.C., Szipl, G., Massen, J.J.M.* & Bugnyar, T. (2020). Ethology, 126, 257-266. doi: 10.1111/eth.12991.

*Auteur verbonden aan de Universiteit Utrecht