After a training period, pigeons are as good as humans at identifying breast cancer (from looking at microscope images). In the study published in PLOS ONE, the authors write:

"The birds proved to have a remarkable ability to distinguish benign from malignant human breast histopathology after training with differential food reinforcement; even more importantly, the pigeons were able to generalize what they had learned when confronted with novel image sets."

The authors do not (yet) suggest that pigeons be used to identify and diagnose cancer, but in an era of innovative new diagnostic techniques for skin cancer and more, perhaps one day these animals will be in use in hospitals. They are not the only disease-detecting animals: dogs can smell cancer, as can fruit flies, and giant African pouched rats can smell tuberculosis (and are more effective than scientists looking at microscope slides of saliva).

This comes on the heels of a number of studies demonstrating that pigeons are excellent at visual discrimination tasks. For example, pigeons can distinguish between paintings by Picasso and Monet, between real objects and images of objects, and between "food" and "non-food."

And I would be remiss not to mention my all-time favorite animal cognition study, entitled "Pigeons can discriminate between "good" and "bad" paintings by children." Link here.


Thank you to Elliott Bannan for sending along this study!