Antarctica's brown skuas can recognize (and dive-bomb) individual humans

March 29, 2016, 12:16 p.m.
Brown skuas can recognize individual people.
Photo: MZPHOTO.CZ/Shutterstock

While crows and ravens are famous for recognizing certain people, brown skuas that live in a mostly human-free habitat apparently also possess the skill.

How does a species that hardly ever sees humans develop the ability to recognize individual people?

Researchers from South Korea studying the brown skuas noticed that the birds seem to know exactly which person has disturbed their nests and will attack that person as they approach. This happens even when the recognized individuals change their field clothes, showing that the birds recognize an individual based on something other than general appearance.

But to be sure of the results, the researchers did another test.

Science Daily writes, "To test if the birds specifically distinguish the researchers who visited the nests from those who did not, a pair of humans consisting of nest intruder (who accessed the nests) and neutral human (who never accessed the nests before) approached to the nests and walked towards the opposite directions. All seven skua pairs followed and tried to attack the nest intruder but never followed the neutral human."

The researchers are a bit surprised to see that skuas, which hardly ever spend time with people, can recognize individuals after just a few visits. It shows a high level of cognitive ability, though the researchers point out that these birds have to be clever to survive in such a harsh environment.

"Brown skuas have been recorded to steal food from other birds or even steal breast milk of nursing elephant seals. According to the researchers, this opportunistic feeding habits may make them cleverer with time," says Science Daily.

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Jaymi Heimbuch is a writer and photographer at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.