Effective communication crucially depends on the ability to produce and recognize structured signals, as apparent in language and birdsong. Although it is not clear to what extent similar syntactic-like abilities can be identified in other animals, recently we reported that domesticchicks can learn abstract visual patterns and the statistical structure defined by a temporal sequence of visual shapes. However, little is known about chicks’ ability to process spatial/positional information from visual configurations.
Here, we used filial imprinting as an unsupervised learning mechanism to study spontaneous encoding of the structure of a configuration of different shapes. After being exposed to a triplet of shapes (ABC or CAB), chicks could discriminate those triplets from a permutation of the same shapes in different order (CAB or ABC), revealing a sensitivity to the spatial arrangement of the elements. When tested with a fragment taken from the imprinting triplet that followed the familiar adjacency-relationships (AB or BC) vs. one in which the shapes maintained their position with respect to the stimulus edges (AC), chicks revealed a preference for the configuration with familiar edge elements, showing an edge bias previously found only with temporal sequences.