Doctor Pigeon will see you now
Next time you see a pigeon flying around, look at it with some respect - it might be able to help with the diagnosis and treatment of human diseases.
A recent study has shown that these birds could be trained to detect breast cancer from images as accurately as humans.
It's all about their visual memory - these birds have plenty of it even if their brains are very small. Professor Edward Wasserman from the University of Iowa, a co-author of the study, says: "Pigeons can distinguish identities and emotional expressions on human faces, letters of the alphabet, misshapen pharmaceutical capsules, and even paintings by Monet versus Picasso." And Wasserman adds that the birds' visual memory capacity is equally impressive, with a proven recall of more than 1,800 images.
So how did the scientists find out about the amazing ability of these birds? They taught different pigeons to distinguish microscope images of cancerous and non-cancerous tissue and rewarded them with food every time they got it right.
It didn't take long to get good results. After two weeks of training in 'pigeon medical school', the 'students' recorded 85% accuracy as they managed to identify cancerous tissue from images they had not seen before.
But pigeons are not the only animals showing potential to help human diagnosis. A team at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences has shown that a dog can be trained to smell urine samples of patients to identify thyroid cancer. It lay down where it could smell cancer and turned away if not. The animals got it right in 30 cases out of 34.
So don't dismiss the abilities of these animals. They might be much more intelligent than you think.