Kea Parrots Treat Physical and Virtual Worlds as Continuous and Equivalent, Study Shows

by johnsmith

Using touchscreen laptops, a team of researchers from the University of Auckland has tested whether kea (Nestor notabilisa) — a large species of parrot endemic to the Southern Alps of New Zealand — behave as naive realists and so expect physical processes to be continuous between the physical and virtual worlds. Their results appear in the journal Biology Letters.

Kea parrots (Nestor notabilisa) don’t differentiate between the real and virtual worlds. Image credit: Amalia Bastos.

Kea parrots (Nestor notabilisa) don’t differentiate between the real and virtual worlds. Image credit: Amalia Bastos.

“Human psychology and animal cognition have increasingly used virtual stimuli to test cognitive abilities, with the expectation that participants are ‘naive realists,’ that is, that they perceive virtual environments as both equivalent and continuous with real-life equivalents,” said lead author Dr. Amalia Bastos, a researcher with the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland, and her colleagues.

“However, there have been no attempts to investigate whether nonhuman subjects in fact behave as if physical processes in the virtual and real worlds are continuous.”

“Kea present an excellent model species to assess whether parrots, and potentially other species, might perceive the real and virtual worlds as continuous, given that they can generalize object discriminations learnt from photographs and touchscreens to real objects and display ape-like performances in a range of cognitive tasks.”

In the study, the researchers trained a group of kea at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve in New Zealand to operate a touchscreen laptop with their tongues.

They then presented the parrots with a series of tasks that took place either fully in the real world, fully on-screen, or with a mixture of both.

First, the birds observed a real ball placed onto a seesaw, which tilted so the ball would roll into one of two real boxes.

They correctly indicated which box they thought the ball was in by touching it with their beaks.

They then correctly performed the same task when all elements were replaced with virtual ones on a screen.

To test whether they expected physical events taking place in a virtual environment to be continuous with the real world, they were presented with a version of the task which had the same virtual animation of the seesaw as before, but it now appeared to deposit the ball into one of two real boxes placed in front of the screen.

The birds continued to select the box the ball was seemingly deposited into, which suggests they expected events on-screen to continue into the real world.

The scientists also presented the parrots with an additional experiment which pitted real and virtual objects against each other.

This confirmed the team’s findings were not due to simpler explanations, such as selecting the box tokens moved closest to, and that the birds showed no preference between real and virtual objects when they were directly compared against each other.

The results are in contrast to those of a recent study, which found 19-month-old human infants did not expect the real and virtual worlds to interact and therefore did not expect a virtual see-saw to deposit a virtual ball into one of two real boxes.

Unlike babies aged 19 months or older, kea expect virtual events to be equivalent and continuous with those in the real world.

“Our study validates the use of virtual reality and tasks blending the real and virtual worlds for use with this species. This potentially has implications for other parrot species as well,” Dr. Bastos said.

“However, further work is needed to determine whether kea with extensive experience of screens might begin to dissociate the real and virtual worlds, and what types of experiences might shift their understanding of screens closer to that of human infants.”

“Training the birds to operate touchscreens was an interesting challenge,” added Dr. Patrick Wood, also from the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland, and her colleagues.

“A parrot’s beak is a lot like your fingernail: it won’t activate a touchscreen. So, we had to teach them to lick the screen with their tongues. Once they acquired this skill, they quickly gained confidence using the touchscreens and they really seem to enjoy it, too.”


Amalia P. M. Bastos et al. 2021. Are parrots naive realists? Kea behave as if the real and virtual worlds are continuous. Biol. Lett 17 (9): 20210298; doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2021.0298

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