You don’t want to get on the wrong side of this Antarctic seabird, as a recent study conducted by South Korean researchers found it can recognize individual humans after meeting them for a couple of times.
It is not that surprising that some intelligent bird species that interact a lot with humans learn to recognize people. You know that crow in the park where you take your daily lunch break? It could remember you and your sandwich.
However, the brown skua, known to scientists as Stercorarius antarcticus, has little to do with humans. Yet, these Antarctic seabirds were capable of recognizing some of the researchers who were analyzing their breeding habits after just seeing them a few times.
Won Young Lee, one of the study’s researchers, said the team was amazed to see how brown skuas – which live in human-free habitats – can remember and recognize individual humans. This might suggest the skua has very high levels of cognitive abilities.
Some of the members of the Korea Polar Research Institute team who had come to observe the nests and eggs of the brown skua got too close to the birds’ nests, which prompted the skuas to attack them.
Ph.D. student Yeong-Deok Han was surprised to see that he could not fool the birds by changing his field clothes. No matter what his appearance was, the skuas still flew over him and tried to hit him.
So they tried an experiment: two researchers approached their nests – one of them was a second-time visitor while the other was unknown to them. Seven out of seven breeding pairs of skuas attacked the repeat guest, even though both individuals acted the same.
What prompted these isolated birds to learn to distinguish between humans?
Given that the brown skuas weren’t thrown off by clothing, and ruling out the hypothesis that smells have tipped them off (it’s too windy and cold in Antarctica), researchers concluded the birds can identify intruders due to visual cues.
Learning to recognize humans could be the result of the skuas’ unusual cognitive abilities. It is possible that the birds could “acquire the discriminatory abilities during a short-term period of living near humans,” according to the study featured in the journal Animal Cognition.
There were no humans on King George’s Island before the Antarctic research stations were installed. Now, about 60 to 80 researchers from the South Korea’s King Sejong Station inhabit the 11 Antarctic stations every summer.
Image Source: ibc.lynxeds.com/