A study at the University of California Davis has found that pigeons are able to distinguish between healthy and cancerous breast tissue samples. Despite having a cerebellum mass of less than 1% of that of an adult human, the birds displayed impressive talents.
Initially, eight pigeons analysed 144 breast tissues scans. They could peck a blue or yellow button, corresponding to a healthy or cancerous image. They would be rewarded with food when a correct diagnosis was made. After the first 2 weeks of training, the accuracy of the pigeons increased from 50% to approximately 85%.
The team then adopted a flock sourcing method which involved grouping the results of four birds to give a majority result for each image. This led to 99% accuracy in identifying the tumours at a range of magnifications, image compression levels, and even in the absence of colour.
Although it is not likely that pigeons will be making appearances in hospital wards and research labs, the birds could potentially assist engineers in developing cancer diagnostic tools. Such devices must be validated by trained professionals in a long and costly process. The common pigeon might just have found itself a new occupation.
Photo: Flickr, Sarath Padarthi