For The Birds

In a recent study conducted by Dr. Richard Levenson, in collaboration with Ed Wasserman, scientists found that pigeons are capable of detecting cancer in tissue samples. Levenson reports that the collaboration with Wasserman is a near total success, saying "It worked spectacularly well. In fact, Ed said that the pigeons responded to this visual challenge as well, or better than, many other tests."

The experiment was conducted using a high-tech box within which the pigeons are placed and shown images of cells with and without cancer, similar to those seen under the microscope. The pigeons were trained to distinguish between cancerous and noncancerous cells by pecking at one of two boxes, receiving pellets whenever it picked the correct corresponding box.

The results sound surprising, but pigeons have vision that is, in some respects, even better than human vision. The birds are able to see more wavelengths of light than we can, including ultraviolet light. This fact is rather impressive when one considers that their brains are only about one-thousandth the size of ours.

The Results

The experiment was done over a span or 15 days, in which the pigeons were able to achieve a 85% success rate at identifying cancer cells. The pigeons also demonstrated what the researchers call “flocksourcing” by working together with other birds to significantly raise their success rate.

Where the pigeons fall short is in classifying suspicious mammographic densities, due to the varying patterns of fat and density between women, which means that the birds aren’t as capable of detecting novel cases and rely mostly on memorization.

Notably, the team isn't trying to train these feathered friends to become doctors; rather, they believe that the creatures can be used for training purposes in relation to new doctors.


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