Surprising Scientists: Eurasian Jays Exhibit Human-Like Memory Traits

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New research shows that Eurasian jays have a memory similar to human episodic memory, enabling them to recall incidental details about past events, which may help them in locating food.

A study has found that jays can remember incidental details, which is similar to episodic memory in humans.

According to a study recently published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, Eurasian jays have the ability to recall incidental details of past events, a trait indicative of episodic memory in humans. This research was conducted by James Davies and his team at the University of Cambridge, UK.

When remembering events, humans have the ability to “mental time travel,” consciously reimagining past experiences and potentially recalling details that seemed unimportant at the time. Some researchers have suggested that this “episodic memory” is unique to humans. In this study, Davies and colleagues ran a memory experiment to test for episodic-like memory in seven Eurasian jays, birds that excel at remembering the location of stored food.

Jaylo the Jay Experiment

Jaylo the jay watching as food is put in the cup with the blue string in the encoding phase. Credit: James Davies, CC-BY 4.0

In the experiment, the birds watched food get placed beneath one cup in a line of four identical cups and were then rewarded for correctly selecting the baited cup. Over several trials, the birds were trained to identify the correct cup by remembering its position in line. Then, at test, the jays were given an unexpected memory assessment: they watched food get placed beneath one of the cups, which now all had unique visual characteristics, but they were then separated from the cups for 10 minutes while the cups were relocated and rearranged. Despite the changed positions of the cups and the added time delay, the birds still correctly identified the baited cup according to their visual characteristics 70% of the time.

Eurasian Jay Bird

Eurasian jays are colorful, intelligent birds found across Europe, North Africa, and Asia. They have striking pinkish-brown feathers with blue wing patches and are known for their loud calls. These clever birds love acorns, which they often bury to eat later, helping forests grow by spreading seeds. You can spot them in woodlands and parks, where their bright plumage and lively behavior stand out.

Eurasian Jays

Eurasian jays (Garrulus glandarius) are medium-sized, colorful members of the crow family (Corvidae) native to Europe, North Africa, and parts of Asia. Recognizable by their striking plumage, they feature a mix of pinkish-brown feathers, a black mustache stripe, blue and white wing patches, and a white rump. These birds are known for their intelligence and complex behaviors, including their ability to plan for the future and use tools.

Eurasian jays primarily feed on a varied diet of acorns, nuts, seeds, insects, and occasionally small vertebrates. They are notable for their habit of caching food, particularly acorns, which they bury to eat later and play a significant role in forest ecology by aiding in the dispersal of oak trees. These jays are often found in woodlands, parks, and gardens, where they are known for their loud and distinctive calls.

Implications of the Study

These results suggest that even though visual differences between the cups were unimportant during training, the birds were able to notice those differences at test and recall them later, similar to episodic memory in humans. This study indicates that episodic-like memory might aid jays in finding food stores, and the researchers suggest that future studies might investigate whether the birds can perform similar feats of memory in other non-food-related scenarios.

The authors add: “As the jays were able to remember details that held no specific value or relevance at the time that the memory was created, this suggests that they are able to record, recall, and access incidental information within a remembered event. This is an ability that characterizes the type of human memory through which we mentally ‘relive’ past events (or episodes), known as ‘episodic’ memory.”

Reference: “Eurasian jays (Garrulus glandarius) show episodic-like memory through the incidental encoding of information” by James R. Davies, Elias Garcia-Pelegrin and Nicola S. Clayton, 15 May 2024, PLOS ONE.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0301298

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