When baby animals such as ducklings are born, they begin to identify and follow their mother around through a process called imprinting.

Scientists say a duckling can imprint on its mother in as little as 15 minutes after it is hatched.

Once imprinting has occurred, the duckling can follow any object, be it the mother duck or any animal, provided that it sees the object within the typical "sensitive period."

So how does the tiny duckling achieve imprinting? That is what a new study from University of Oxford attempted to explain.

As reported by Tech Times, the study found that ducklings are capable of abstract thought. This newly discovered ability may put a new spin to the term "bird-brain."

How Ducklings Imprint On Objects

Ducks can fly, swim and walk — constantly shifting their appearance and shape as they become slightly submerged or as they spread their wings.

The "shape-shifting" may also happen depending on the angle of the viewer.

In the new Oxford study, several ducklings were presented with two objects that are either similar or different from each other in color or in shape. The pair of objects moved in a circular path.

The ducklings imprinted on the pair of moving objects prior to the main research. During the succeeding tests, each duckling was allowed to follow either one of two pairs of objects to which the animal was not exposed.

For instance, if one duckling was initially exposed to a pair of spherical objects, in the choice test, the duckling may have to choose between following two moving pyramids or a pair with one cuboid and one cube. The first choice denotes similarity, while the second choice contains different objects.

If the ducklings learned the relationship between members of the initial moving pair, then the animals should have followed the first choice, even if they have never seen the objects before.

In the case stated above, researchers found that the ducklings that imprinted on two spheres opted to follow the pair of pyramids, because they were similar to each other.

In the end, approximately three-quarters of the ducklings chose to follow the pair that exhibited the relationship they learned during imprinting.

The ducklings' accuracy was as good whether they learned the concept of "same" and "different," or whether they were tested with color or shape, researchers said.

Recognizing Their Mothers

Antone Martinho, the first author of the study, says that although it is unexpected that such young ducklings can pick up something that typically "intelligent" animals can, it also makes sense in terms of biology.

When a duckling is very young, it needs to be as close to its mother for protection. Failing to identify the mother can be fatal, he says.

Martinho says that if the younglings only have a visual snapshot of their mother, they would get lost. Ducklings have to reliably and flexibly distinguish their mother, so a "mental library" of characteristics and concepts that describe the mother is an efficient way to do so, he adds.

Photo: Michele Dorsey Walfred | Flickr

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