Surprise ! Dinosaurs knew how to put themselves in other people’s shoes!

Beasts, dinosaurs? You will have to revise your judgment on these creatures of the past, because a new study reveals that they would indeed have been endowed, long before mammals, with a complex cognitive capacity which today is only observed in a few species. !

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It’s quite a fun game to make, and maybe you’ve already experienced it. Standing in a street full of people, you look at something imaginary in the sky. Instinctively, all the people around will do the same, trying in vain to detect what can so catch your eye. The objective of this reflex is to ensure that the information that attracts the attention of a congener is shared within the group. This may especially be for survival purposes. This is a reaction observed in all mammals, birds and even reptiles.

In a substantially similar context, you will also try to follow the gaze of another person, even if your vision is then obstructed. By moving to actually see what is happening, you are exhibiting a much more complex behavioral response than the previous one, demonstrating your ability to understand that the other person has a different perspective from yours. This ability is known as visual perspective and is acquired in humans between the ages of one and a half and two years. For once, it is mainly observed only in the great apes, in certain dogsdogs and in crows.

A capacity testifying to a complex social behavior, appeared in dinosaurs!

Testimony of a complex social behavior, the origin of the visual perspective is however not well identified. A research team from Lund University therefore investigated theemergenceemergence of this ability. Their results, published in Science Advancesreveal that it could have appeared first… among the dinosaursdinosaurs !

While we tend to think of dinosaurs as basic creatures with a brainbrain no bigger than a walnut compared to their sometimes disproportionate size, this study shows that this time they would have had a head start on mammals.

It is by means of a comparison between the alligators and the most primitive groups of birds existing to date, the paleognaths (of which some speciesspecies ostriches, emu and cassowaries for example), that the researchers made this astonishing discovery.

The neuroanatomy of crocodilianscrocodilians indeed seems to have evolved very little over the last hundreds of millions of years and would remain quite similar to their ancestors the dinosaurs. For their part, paleognaths have a brain very comparable to that of non-avian paravian dinosaurs, such as the famous velociraptorvelociraptor.

Birds and Dinosaurs Smarter Than We Thought

The study thus reveals that, if the alligators do not seem to have visual perspective, the paleognaths clearly do, going so far as to go back and forth between the gaze of their congener and the direction observed in order to identify the object of attention! This line of birds would have appeared 110 million years ago, long before the emergence of the two groups of mammals with this ability, primates and dogs. Moreover, given the neuroanatomical proximity of these birds to certain dinosaurs, it is possible to consider that the appearance of visual perspective is even older and that it would have occurred within the lineage of the dinosaurs. The absence of this ability in alligators, however, suggests that it does not date from the very first dinosaurs, whose neural structure is rather similar to that of crocodilians.

These results show that our view that mammals are the only carriers of a complex cognitive evolution must be revised. They come on top of many other studies that increasingly tend to show that the avian dinosaurs and their descendants, the birds, would have had cognitive abilities far more complex than previously thought.

Written by Emilie Grenaud

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