There is very little about the brown skua bird that is obviously interesting. It has mundane coloring, lives in the Antarctic and isn’t particularly fond of people. However, according to a team of researchers, the bird is incredibly smart and is capable of recognizing individual humans after only seeing them a handful of times.
Discovery News reported on March 25 that a team of scientists from South Korea were studying the bird in Antarctica when they noticed that the birds appeared to recognize certain humans who were often near their nests. Once a week, some of the researchers went to check the nests, but apparently the skuas were not particularly fond of this, and would attack the intruders “yelling” at them and kicking at their heads.
After being assaulted by the birds, the group of scientists decided to see if the birds could tell a person that had come near their nests from one who hadn’t. To test the birds, two researchers, one of which had been near the nests before and one who had not, walked towards the birds in a pair before heading off in opposite directions. The skuas seemed to know exactly who the intruder was, and all seven pairs attacked him leaving the other unknown researcher alone.
According to the study the researchers published in the journal Animal Cognition there are two possibilities for how the birds managed to distinguish between humans. One hypothesis is that the birds are extremely intelligent already and just manage to figure out the difference immediately. The other option is that they managed to acquire the ability to tell humans apart after being exposed to them.
“It appears that cognitive abilities of skuas promote learning of this skill by individual birds during their occasional interactions with humans inhabiting Antarctic stations,” wrote the scientists. “Since this area has been inhabited by humans only after the Antarctic research stations were installed, we think that the skuas could acquire the discriminatory abilities during a short-term period of living near humans,” said Won Young Lee, the lead author, in a press release.
While there are plenty of species, including birds such as parrots and crows, that have shown the ability to distinguish between humans, skuas are incredible because they have lived so far from humans for so long and appear to have acquired the ability rapidly. Popular Science reported that research stations were set up in Antarctica sparingly in the 1890s, and large numbers of stations only started appearing in the 1950s.
“It is amazing that brown skuas, which evolved and lived in human-free habitats, recognized individual humans after just three or four visits,” said Lee. “It seems that they have very high levels of cognitive abilities.”