Down with untrue intros


There are often opening sentences like, “only humans can x” or “only primates can x”. Why do people assume these sorts of statements are true without checking? Why does no one seem to complain? Either authors and readers don’t really care if the statements are true – they are just openers and not the important part of the piece; or they want the statements to be true and so are shy about looking at any evidence.

A recent paper (Anna Kis, Ludwig Huber, Anna Wilkinson. Social learning by imitation in a reptile (Pogona vitticeps). Animal Cognition, 2014) was reported in ScienceDaily with the opening line, “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.” I knew this was not true and that other animals have this skill (a number of mammals besides primates and a number of birds). Looking at the abstract of the paper, I found a similar opening line. It was not so restrictive – “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.” But even this is a bit restricted as octopuses also learn from one another. We should not be sure that some animal (an social insect for example) does not do x unless we have looked to see. And throw-away openings should be at least true.

But the paper has interesting news. Bearded dragons can learn from one another! Reptiles can be included too. We are more closely related to these reptiles than to birds. This finding strengthens the idea that social learning is an ancient skill in vertebrates, rather than separately evolved in various types of vertebrates. Although it is still reasonable to think that it evolved separately in invertebrates.

Here is the 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.

2 thoughts on “Down with untrue intros

  1. bolko

    I don’t disagree completely with these opening lines. After all, it was a surprising find, and researchers tried to point it out to readers by using a common expression. I don’t know though if it is the first find of this kind. I remember an older study, again by Anna Wilkinson, about social learning in a non-social species, the red-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonaria), which was even more surprising as members of this solita○ry species could use the movements of conspecifics for their advantage.

    My understanding is, whenever scientists set out to find ‘advanced’ cognitive abilities in reptiles, most of the time they are found, but of course not always. Reptiles are unjustly underrated as it regards their cognition. Centuries-old stereotypes of slow, unintelligent etc reptiles still abound, and scientific studies on their behaivior from a cognitive perspective are quite recent, and still scarse. There is not even a specific brain terminology for reptiles, as it has been developed for birds, which aren’t in fact nothing more than a specialized clade of reptiles with a larger brain overall and specializations for good vision, flight etc. Reptiles have no nidopallium, arcopallium, etc; they have a dvr which is not even called such consistently. They have not the pompously named hyperpallium; they have just a dorsal cortex. They have not a hippocampus; just a medial cortex, which even if repetedly found to have the same functions as the avian and mammalian hippocampus, it is still hesitantly name the hippocampal formation by a few only scientists. Some researchers use avian, others mammalian and others amphibian and general vertebrate terminology for the reptile brain, and terms from all these fields might be used interchangeably. Is a unified terminology for the reptile brain foreseeable?

    I have a bearded dragon, and I can attest to her intelligence. I thought too that it will not be very intelligent, but it doesn’t differ much from a small mammal. She knows to return to the vicinity of her cage from outside, for example if the sun gets obscured by clouds, moving a distance that in a straight line could be 20 meters. She knows all the places outside where I let her roam where the most sunlight and heat gathers, and waits on them even if the weather is overcast. She can clearly distinguish between different foods and tries to pick the favorites, she knows the boxes were I store insects, and as of now I haven’t convinced her to take moving leaves, thus she is able to distinguish clearly between plant and animal foods. Given that their smell is not well-developed, could they use the same visual categorization as found in birds? But even she is intelligent, she is not the mot intelligent animal on earth. She still forgets that the transparent materials are barriers if excited, she cannot change her hunting method to catch more difficult prey, and she doesn’t manipulate things much, if at all. For bearded dragon standards, she is an apathetic and lazy animal, and probably less intelligent than others. Although she is very observant and looks towards the slightest change, she prefers to stay at her place, but other dragons move in front of the tank for example to get food when they see humans, follow human movements etc. It is not surprising that this species can show some intelligence, given that it is an opportunistic predator of everything it can catch, lives in a climatically unpredictable environment, but most of the days are hot, so it can have a near constant temperature and metabolism for its active hours. There are other intelligent or social reptiles in the interior of Australia, like nearly eusocial Egenria skinks, resourceful Tiliqua skinks and the very intelligent monitor lizards. Meanwhile, most of the mammals have quite small brains compared to species in other continents. Is it that reptiles, having better adaptations for a dry climate and food sortages developed more intelligence in this environment, but mammals needed to simplify the brain for economy? Could the same happen in the dry triassic pangea between archosaurs and synapsids? An interesting thought.

    Generally the bearded dragon is a food and warmth oriented animal. If both of these needs are met, it has no reason to show any more intelligence to get something. Probably that is the reason that it is more difficult to find intelligence in reptiles. A mammal will do various silly tricks to get food, but a lizard may be satisfied for a couple of days after a feeding. Also a reptile will just hide away and stop eating with no ill effects for days if stressed a lot, not constantly avoid the danger like a mammal.

    Even if you find it strange, the people hwo question a lot the cognitive abilities or social natures of reptiles are the people who say they have experience with reptiles, the reptile keepers themselves. It is a majority view, but not a consensus fortunately, that reptiles are all asocial, primitive animals which don’t need others to thrive. Even if you give them studies to the contrary they will say that this is just one study and not get convinced. They believe that a dominance hierarchy in a group enclosure is inherently bad for the subordinate animals, even though they acknowledge the same hierarchy in birds and mammals, and think it as normal. Then, from fear of something bad hapenning, they don’t house reptiles in groups, so they don’t have any experience of that arrangement. They also keep them solitary to record-keep them. I understand the importance of record keeping for a new arrival, a rare breeding animal etc, but I don’t see any need to keep records for an established animal. Of course there are strictly solitary species that is a danger to have them together, like some chameleons, and others so simple-brained that they will basicly ignore each other like most boas and pythons, but I believe that the majority of lizards and turtles can be kept in a social setting. Will this attitude change one day? I believe not.


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