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Planning for the future by western scrub-jays


Knowledge of and planning for the future is a complex skill that is considered by many to be uniquely human. We are not born with it; children develop a sense of the future at around the age of two and some planning ability by only the age of four to five1,2,3. According to the Bischof-Köhler hypothesis4, only humans can dissociate themselves from their current motivation and take action for future needs: other animals are incapable of anticipating future needs, and any future-oriented behaviours they exhibit are either fixed action patterns or cued by their current motivational state. The experiments described here test whether a member of the corvid family, the western scrub-jay (Aphelocoma californica), plans for the future. We show that the jays make provision for a future need, both by preferentially caching food in a place in which they have learned that they will be hungry the following morning and by differentially storing a particular food in a place in which that type of food will not be available the next morning. Previous studies have shown that, in accord with the Bischof-Köhler hypothesis, rats5 and pigeons6 may solve tasks by encoding the future but only over very short time scales. Although some primates and corvids7,8,9 take actions now that are based on their future consequences, these have not been shown to be selected with reference to future motivational states10, or without extensive reinforcement of the anticipatory act11. The results described here suggest that the jays can spontaneously plan for tomorrow without reference to their current motivational state, thereby challenging the idea that this is a uniquely human ability.

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Figure 1: Compartmental layout used for the ‘planning for breakfast’ experiment.
Figure 2: Mean number of peanuts and kibble cached in the ‘breakfast choice’ experiment.


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This research was supported by a BBSRC Grant and the University of Cambridge, and was conducted within an MRC Cooperative Grant. Thanks to J. Dally, A. Seed and M. Ellis for comments on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to N. S. Clayton.

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Raby, C., Alexis, D., Dickinson, A. et al. Planning for the future by western scrub-jays. Nature 445, 919–921 (2007).

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