NOV 21, 2015 7:07 AM PST

Pigeons Take a Peck at Cancer, and They

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham

The humble pigeon, commonly referenced as a public nuisance or a pea-brained "rat with wings," may have earned its most illustrious label yet: a cancer detector!

It's true that the pigeon's brain is about one-thousandth the size of the human brain, but despite their pea-sized brains, pigeons turn out to be smarter than we think. Pigeons can be trained with visual cues to categorize objects, distinguish alphabet letters, and even recognize people in different clothing. Their vision may even be superior to ours, as they can see wavelengths of light that we can't.

Exploiting this visual acuity and ability to recall patterns, researchers tested whether pigeons can be trained to recognize and categorize normal vs. cancer images? The birds trained on 144 histology images at different magnifications and different diagnoses. Each time it pecked the correct answer box, the pigeon got a food reward. After training, the pigeons were reported to have a "remarkable" 85% accuracy rate, identifying correctly if the images were normal or malignant.

The 85% accuracy is quite impressive for an animal thought to be near brain-less, but rest assured, it's not nearly accurate enough for anyone to use pigeons in place of human experts. But this study shows that pigeons can be used in other areas of diagnostic testing, informing researchers on pattern recognition schemes. If nothing else, this study has hopefully elevated the status of the humble pigeons.
About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
You May Also Like
DEC 30, 2019
Space & Astronomy
DEC 30, 2019
How SpaceX's Crew Dragon Will Operate, From Start to Finish
It’s no mystery by now that SpaceX is working hard to earn the right to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station via NASA’s Commerci...
DEC 30, 2019
Plants & Animals
DEC 30, 2019
Are Blue Animals Truly Blue?
Animals come in all sorts of colors, and while the animal kingdom has most of the rainbow’s colors at its disposal, there are a few exceptions. Some...
JAN 07, 2020
Plants & Animals
JAN 07, 2020
Baby Penguins Are Often Bullied to Death by Adults
Most people envision penguins as fun, happy-go-lucky birds residing in the Earth’s chilly polar regions, but that’s not always the case. In fac...
FEB 12, 2020
Health & Medicine
FEB 12, 2020
Brain Patients are Advancing Research
Neuroscientists may face the challenge of not having enough material or high-quality material to study the condition they’re researching. Luckily&mda...
FEB 18, 2020
Plants & Animals
FEB 18, 2020
This Wasp Turns Cockroaches Into Zombies for its Larvae
We can’t think of anyone that likes cockroaches, but one insect in particular seems to scout them out specifically for its own bizarre reasons. The e...
FEB 22, 2020
Clinical & Molecular DX
FEB 22, 2020
Harmful Algal Blooms
Algae is an essential plant-like organism. They contribute to the diet of some marine animals and supply necessary oxygen to bodies of water. Algae populat...
Loading Comments...