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Can Pigeons See Cancer?

Posted On: 11-23-2015
Can Pigeons See Cancer?

A new study published in the journal PLOS ONE in November has revealed that pigeons might be useful at detecting cancer in patients.

The study’s authors suggest that pigeons may have a role in cancer detection and training of medical professionals in the future. Dr. Richard Levenson of University of California-Davis Medical Center and Dr. Ed Wasserman of the University of Iowa collaborated on the study.

It turns out that the vision of a pigeon is just as effective as the vision of a human, and possibly even better. Pigeons can actually see more wavelengths of light than we are able, even though their brains are drastically smaller.

This particular study involved placing eight pigeons in boxes where they were shown an image like one that a scientist would view under a microscope. The pigeons were trained to peck at one box if the sample they were viewing was benign, and the other box is the sample was malignant. The images on the slides ranged from cancer cells to non-cancerous cells and breast tissue samples. The pigeons were rewarded for choosing the correct answer and trained with 144 images in total. During the course of the 15-day study, the birds were able to tell the difference between cancerous and non-cancerous cells, even when it came to images they had not seen before. Their accuracy even rose when they were able to work together.

Through earlier studies, researchers have found that pigeons can tell the difference between letters in the alphabet, recognize humans even if they have changed into different clothes, and can sort objects into categories.

These new developments have left some in the medical community wondering if future advancements could include using pigeons in laboratory medicine in a way that is similar to the current use of rats in studies. If anything, the training of pigeons can assist with determining which images are trickier for doctors to decipher. 

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