New research has for the first time provided evidence that reptiles could be capable of social learning through imitation.
The ability to acquire new skills through the ‘true imitation’ of others’ behaviour is thought to be unique to humans and advanced primates, such as chimpanzees.
Scientists draw an important distinction between imitation and emulation when studying the cognitive abilities of animals. In true imitation, the individual ‘copying’ another’s behaviour not only mimics what they see, but also understands the intention behind the action. In emulation, an animal copies a behaviour without understanding its deeper significance: for example, a parrot reciting the words of its owner.
There is considerable debate about the extent to which non-primates are capable of true imitation.
Now researchers from the UK and Hungary have presented the first compelling scientific evidence that reptiles could be capable of social learning through imitation.
They set out to investigate whether the bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps) is capable of imitating another bearded dragon through a simple experiment using a wooden board which contained a doorway. …
First, the whole concept of a “tree of intelligence” that would forever privilege mammals and birds over reptiles is nonsense. Reptiles can be as smart as birds. Their main intelligence problem is that they are exotherms and thus don’t need to be smart just to survive.
But the advertised distinction between “imitation” and “emulation” sounds suspicious.
The reason a parrot can’t understand the words he is repeating is that he is only repeating a string of sounds, oblivious to any concepts that might underlie them.
However, animals can often learn the meanings of non-abstract words in human languages as long as the meaning is within the animal’s own frame of reference. “Walkies!!”, taught to a dog, is a good example. It means nothing to a cat, who would just go wherever he liked if let out.
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