If humans, chimps, gorillas, and orangutans can all do something, but monkeys can’t, that tells a certain evolutionary story: it suggests that the ability emerged sometime after the apes split off from the monkeys on our evolutionary tree. But if a bird comes along with that ability, it throws the whole story off course. Corvids—a family of birds that includes ravens, jays, and crows—seem to delight in doing just that.
Humans pretty obviously plan for the future, from packing a brown bag lunch to saving for retirement. Other apes also seem to be able to plan for the short-term future, at least up to one night. Monkeys don’t. But a paper in Science this week reports a small group of corvids succeeding at future-planning tasks. That points to a complex evolutionary story.
Two cognitive scientists at Lund University in Sweden, Can Kabadayi and Mathias Osvath, conducted a series of experiments with five captive, hand-raised ravens. Obviously, that’s not a lot of ravens, and hand-raised ravens do not behave like wild ravens. But when it comes to figuring out the outer bounds of cognitive abilities for a species, those aren’t the most important problems to worry about. Testing more ravens, and wild ravens, comes later.