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Reasoning about “Capability”: Wild Robins Respond to Limb Visibility in Humans

Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Department of Biopsychology, Ruhr University Bochum, Bochum 44801, Germany
School of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington 6140, New Zealand
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Academic Editor: Jennifer Vonk
Behav. Sci. 2016, 6(3), 15;
Received: 30 April 2016 / Revised: 5 July 2016 / Accepted: 6 July 2016 / Published: 21 July 2016
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Advances in Animal Cognition)
PDF [2497 KB, uploaded 21 July 2016]


Little comparative work has focused on what nonhumans understand about what physical acts others are capable of performing, and none has yet done so in the wild, or within a competitive framework. This study shows that North Island robins visually attend to human limbs in the context of determining who to steal food from. We presented 24 wild North Island Robins (Petroica longipes) with two experimenters. Robins could choose to steal a mealworm from one of two experimenters: one whose limbs were exposed and one who underwent a range of visual obstructions in two experiments. In most conditions, robins preferred to steal food located near the experimenter whose limbs were obscured by a cloth or board rather than food located near the experimenter whose limbs were not obscured. The robins’ responses indicate that human limb visibility is associated with reduced access to food. Current findings lay the groundwork for a closer look at the potential general use of causal reasoning in an inter-specific context of using limbs to perform physical acts, specifically within the context of pilfering. This study presents one of the first tests of the role of visual attendance of potential limb availability in a competitive context, and could provide an alternative hypothesis for how other species have passed tests designed to examine what individuals understand about the physical acts others are capable of performing. View Full-Text
Keywords: capability; physical causality; intentional actions; New Zealand robin; pilfering capability; physical causality; intentional actions; New Zealand robin; pilfering

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Garland, A.; Low, J. Reasoning about “Capability”: Wild Robins Respond to Limb Visibility in Humans. Behav. Sci. 2016, 6, 15.

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