Monday, October 20, 2014

Scientists discover that reptiles may have more sophisticated cognitive ability that facilitates learning new skills

The way that animals interact with the world around them has long fascinated us, and most often we as pet owners are focused on behavior and ability to learn when it comes to our dogs and cats — as well as a fair share of those who have horses and birds.

What may not be on our radar is that other species that are kept as pets — reptiles, like the bearded dragon, specifically — may also use a type of learning to gain new skills that only other animals were known employ: social learning.

In the past, it was thought that only certain species of animals (as an example, primates and canines) were capable of using social learning.

Researchers discovered that reptiles, bearded dragons, as they witnessed in a new study, likely use social learning through imitation as well — something that has not been noticed before.

The study, called Social learning by imitation in a reptile (Pogona vitticeps), was recently published in the journal Animal Cognition and used 12 bearded dragons that had never been used in experiments in cognition.

Researchers from the United Kingdom, Eötvös University in Hungary, Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna were behind the study.

Because it's known that reptiles and mammals evolved from a common ancestor, sorting out the two group's similarities and differences in behavior is of interest to help flesh out the overall evolution of cognition.

Lead researcher from The School of Life Sciences, University of Lincoln, UK, Anna Wilkinson expanded a bit on the topic.

"The ability to learn through imitation is thought to be the pinnacle of social learning and long considered a distinctive characteristic of humans. However, nothing is known about these abilities in reptiles. This research suggests that the bearded dragon is capable of social learning that cannot be explained by simple mechanisms — such as an individual being drawn to a certain location because they observed another in that location or through observational learning. The finding is not compatible with the claim that only humans, and to a lesser extent great apes, are able to imitate."

It's important to clarify that in discussing cognition, imitation (in other words, mimicking what is seen, as well as comprehending the intention behind the action), differs from emulation, or simply parroting behavior without understanding that there might be a desired outcome that will result.

To do the study, researchers used one lizard that was trained to demonstrate the act of opening a wire door which concealed a hole that was cut in a wooden board. The door could be slid to left or right by using their head or the foot. After opening the door, the lizard was given a food reward.

The other lizards were divided into two groups: experimental and control.
The experimental subjects watched the lizard used to demonstrate the activity (using their head to open the door), and each of them went on to imitate it successfully.
Subjects in the control group did not imitate it, nor did they observe the demonstrator lizard manipulate the door.

"This, together with differences in behavior between experimental and control groups, suggests that learning by imitation is likely to be based on ancient mechanisms. These results reveal the first evidence of imitation in a reptile species and suggest that reptiles can use social information to learn through imitation."

Click here for more on the study.

Archerfish are also known to use social learning to gain skills in going after food, according to a recent article on

You can watch one of the experimental lizards in the study imitate the behavior.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer -- most recently as a regular contributor for The Ann Arbor News -- and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

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