Can animals recognize distantly related, unfamiliar individuals of the same species? Evolutionary biologists from the University of Zurich have demonstrated, for the first time, that Siberian jays (image) possess this somewhat amazing ability. The new findings were published online on October 13, 2015 in Molecular Ecology. The article is titled “Fine-Scale Kin Recognition in the Absence of Social Cues in the Siberian Jay, a Monogamous Bird Species.” Siberian jays belong to the crow family and the new work shows that they are able to accurately assess the degree of kinship to unfamiliar individuals. This ability confers advantages when sharing food and other forms of cooperation. In a few mammal, bird, and fish species, it is known that individuals can recognize unfamiliar siblings. Until now, however, it remained unclear whether animals are also able to identify more distant, unfamiliar relatives. The new work has now shown that Siberian jays evolved this ability. Kinship is a critical factor favoring cooperation between and among individuals. The reason behind this is likely that helping closely related individuals aids in propagating one’s own genes. Consequently, most insects, meerkats, or birds that breed cooperatively (i.e., individuals help to raise offspring that are not their own) live in family groups. The Siberian jay, which occurs in Northern Scandinavia and the Siberian taiga lives in family groups that share a territory. Non-breeding birds are both offspring that remain with their parents for several year beyond independency and individuals that immigrate into groups early in their lives. [Note: The Siberian taiga, also known as boreal forest or snow forest, is a biome characterized by coniferous forests consisting mostly of pines, spruces, and larches.
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