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Anim Cogn. 2015 Jan;18(1):111-8.

Testing problem solving in turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) using the string-pulling test.


To examine problem solving in turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), six captive vultures were presented with a string-pulling task, which involved drawing a string up to access food. This test has been used to assess cognition in many bird species. A small piece of meat suspended by a string was attached to a perch. Two birds solved the problem without apparent trial-and-error learning; a third bird solved the problem after observing a successful bird, suggesting that this individual learned from the other vulture. The remaining birds failed to complete the task. The successful birds significantly reduced the time needed to solve the task from early trials compared to late trials, suggesting that they had learned to solve the problem and improved their technique. The successful vultures solved the problem in a novel way: they pulled the string through their beak with their tongue, and may have gathered the string in their crop until the food was in reach. In contrast, ravens, parrots and finches use a stepwise process; they pull the string up, tuck it under foot, and reach down to pull up another length. As scavengers, turkey vultures use their beak for tearing and ripping at carcasses, but possess large, flat, webbed feet that are ill-suited to pulling or grasping. The ability to solve this problem and the novel approach used by the turkey vultures in this study may be a result of the unique evolutionary pressures imposed on this scavenging species.

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