Reptiles aren’t typically considered the most social of animals, but research has proven that they are actually capable of social learning. A study1 published in September 2014 reports that they can learn new skills through imitation. This is the first evidence for this type of learning in reptiles. Previously, it was thought to only be a capability of only certain primates.
In the study, the experimenters had bearded dragons watch another bearded dragon slide open a door to access food. When presented with the same task, all of the bearded dragons successfully employed the same technique for opening the door. A control group of lizards that were never shown the demonstrator lizard did not try to use the same technique. This suggests that the individuals in the first group were indeed imitating the actions of the bearded dragon they had observed.
“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.” said lead researcher Dr Anna Wilkinson.2
Watch footage from the experiment in the clip below:
The paper’s abstract:
The ability to learn through imitation is thought to be the basis of cultural transmission and was long considered a distinctive characteristic of humans. There is now evidence that both mammals and birds are capable of imitation. However, nothing is known about these abilities in the third amniotic class—reptiles.
Here, we use a bidirectional control procedure to show that a reptile species, the bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps), is capable of social learning that cannot be explained by simple mechanisms such as local enhancement or goal emulation. Subjects in the experimental group opened a trap door to the side that had been demonstrated, while subjects in the ghost control group, who observed the door move without the intervention of a conspecific, were unsuccessful.
This, together with differences in behaviour between experimental and control groups, provides compelling evidence that reptiles possess cognitive abilities that are comparable to those observed in mammals and birds and suggests that learning by imitation is likely to be based on ancient mechanisms.
This article was written by Amanda Pachniewska, founder & editor of AnimalCognition.org
1 – Anna Kis, Ludwig Huber, Anna Wilkinson
Social learning by imitation in a reptile (Pogona vitticeps)
2 – Marie Daniels, First Evidence that Reptiles can Learn Through Imitation
University of Lincoln UK