Of course most folks likely know of Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s work with the venerable African grey Alex, who passed away in 2007. However, you may not know that Dr. Pepperberg’s research is ongoing. The focus of much of this research is comparative psychology, which is the study of the behavior and mental processes of non-human animals. While Alex gained his fame largely from studies comparing his cognitive abilities with those of humans, some of the new studies from the Pepperberg Lab compare grey parrots’ mental processes and abilities against other animals.
Not too long ago, a paper in this field of study was published demonstrating an interesting discovery about the behavior of cleaner wrasse fish. These fish spend their lives on a specific section of coral reef where they survive by eating parasites from the gills of other fish who share the habitat. The study showed that the cleaner wrasses are able to distinguish other permanent reef ‘resident’ fish from ‘visitor’ fish who stop by only temporarily. The wrasses will abandon feeding on their permanent neighbors’ parasites to take advantage of the opportunity to eat any parasites the newcomers may have. (They seem to know which individual fish live there full-time and will thus be a more constant food source, as opposed to those who are just stopping by and might have some parasites of their own that could be eaten as a welcome supplement to the cleaner wrasses’ diet.)
Leigh Ann Hartsfield and Dr. Irene Pepperberg
You may ask what does this have to do with African grey parrots? Well, this is exactly what comparative psychologists like Dr. Pepperberg do: they compare behaviors and cortical functions across species lines. This kind of science advances in precisely this manner. So, compare we did!
The resulting paper was published on May 15 in the Journal of Comparative Psychology. An African grey parrot adopted from Phoenix Landing (Franco) was one of three participants in this study, along with Dr. Pepperberg’s Griffin and another grey named Pepper. To replicate the concept of the cleaner wrasses’ behavior, we attempted to see if the parrots in this study were able to learn that certain choices they made meant they could eat both the chosen food item and the additional choice offered, while other choices meant they would have the opportunity to eat only the item chosen. (Of course this is a vastly simplified explanation of the experimental procedures.)
Well, wouldn’t you know: the parrots succeeded! And, they succeeded where capuchins, orangutans, and chimpanzees failed. (Capuchins also succeeded at the task at a later point.) To read the abstract from the publication, click here: http://psycnet.apa.org/?&fa=main.doiLanding&doi=10.1037/a0036205