Comparative Cognition

Comparative Cognition

Evolution of intelligent minds

We are broadly interested in how minds function and how brains evolve in adaptation to their socio-ecological environments. Because we are particularly interested in the evolution of intelligence, complex cognition and imitation ability (vocal learning), we pursue a comparative approach with a focus on parrots (the order Psittaciformes) and crows (the corvid family), thus the two avian taxa that stand out among all birds (and -together with primates and delphinids- among all vertebrates) in terms of both relative brain size and neuron density, and that are also characterized by their plastic vocal learning.  

Our research centers on three themes, namely I) innovation and flexible problem solving, II) social cognition with a focus on cooperation, and III) possible links between vocal imitation ability and cognition, which we study in terms of both ultimate (adaptive function and evolutionary history) and proximate (causation and development) causes.

Methodologically, we use three different approaches: a) detailed mechanistic studies of cognitive abilities in selected model species, b) systematic large-scale phylogenetic comparisons using cognitive test batteries, and c) comparative ontogenetic studies on cognitive development.


The latter two approaches remain underdeveloped within the field of comparative cognition, and become possible through a collaboration between the MPIO and the Loro Parque Foundation (LPF), Tenerife, a NGO concerned with wildlife conservation, which possesses the largest parrot collection in the world, thus offering unparalleled opportunities for comparative studies. This gives us access to around 4000 parrots of 350 subspecies kept mostly in pairs for breeding purposes and ca. 1500 parrot chicks per year of many different species raised under standardized conditions. 

In addition to a corvid lab associated to the MPIO, we run a research station in collaboration with and provided by the LPF, where we work with four species of parrots well habituated to participating in more complex cognitive studies that would not be possible in the breeding center. They are touchscreen trained and used to interacting with humans and conspecifics, e.g. exchanging tokens. Following the model of the Wolfgang-Köhler-Primate-Research Center of the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, which is run jointly with the Zoo Leipzig in Germany, this center is integrated in the zoological garden Loro Parque, so that zoo visitors can watch the research live and learn about Cognitive Sciences and Animal Intelligence.

Current research projects associated with the CCRG:

Social learning in corvids (IMPRS PhD project, Berenika Mioduszewska)

Causal cognition in parrots (IMPRS PhD project, Laurence O’Neill)

Tool innovation in New Caledonian crows (co-supervised PhD project, Magdalena Pelayo, Department of Cognitive Biology, University of Vienna)

Tool related cognition in children and birds (co-supervised PhD project, Samara Danel, Univerité Lumière Lyon)

Social Cognition in cockatiels and jackdaws (co-supervised PhD project, Agatha Lievin-Bazin, Université de Nanterre, Paris)

Prospective memory in dolphins and parrots (Sara Torres Ortiz, IMPRS PhD student)

Vocal and motor imitation in parrots (Esha Haldar, IMPRS PhD student)

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