Updated:16/02/2021 13: 02h
Pigs may not be able to fly, but they can play video games. In a new study, Researchers from Purdue University in Indiana (United States) demonstrated that these animals can use a digital screen and a joystick, using their snouts. So they can move a cursor and get rewards.
This is a complex task. Animals must understand the link between moving around the joystick and what happens on the computer screen, and then link what happens on the screen to get a reward. All four pigs tested were able to do that to some degree, which shows their intelligence.
As the researchers raised the difficulty of the task, sending them to new levels, the pigs were not yet ready to compete with the kids in Mario Kart. They couldn’t even compete with the monkeys the task was originally designed for. This may be because moving a joystick with the muzzle is much more difficult than with opposable thumbs, or because pigs are not as good at the task as primates.
A high note for Porki
This new study fits well with what we already know about pigs. They show remarkable intelligence in a series of complex cognitive tasks. They can, for example, learn to respond differently to different sounds and are masters of spatial learning tasks.
But there are limits to what they can do. The use of mirrors, for example, is not something that all pigs can master. Although they can use simple geometric shapes to decide which answer to give, recognizing other pigs from photographs is too difficult. This is surprising since other farm animals such as sheep and cattle can recognize their friends in photographs.
But why do we care that pigs can play in the arcade or learn to get candy in spatial learning tasks? After all, they are not likely to find an Xbox on a farm. This study is part of a growing area in animal welfare research: the study of farm animal cognition.
Farm animal intelligence
There are three main reasons why we care about how smart farm animals are. Farms are becoming increasingly complex places to live. Group housing is now the norm in the European Union, which means that pigs must keep track of social interactions. Farms are also increasingly using automatic feeders that pigs have to operate themselves, and on some mainly organic farms, access to the outdoors means that animals should be able to move more space.
All of this is good for fighting boredom in farm animals and undoubtedly improves the welfare of pigs. But it is important to know what the capabilities of these animals are, to ensure that they can cope with all the changes that come their way.
Second, there is the ethical concept of ‘intrinsic value’: cWhat is the value of an animal just for being alive. Instead of monetary value as an agricultural product or value to a human being as a companion, this is the value of being himself, just a pig, with all the little piggy things he does like grunting, picking truffles, socializing and having natural intelligence .
If these kinds of things are altered by agricultural practices like genetic selection programs and early weaning of piglets from their mothers, that raises ethical questions. Is it worth sacrificing a more efficient agricultural system?
Finally, understanding animal cognition gives us a fundamental idea of how animals perceive the world. That understanding can foster greater empathy and promote better stewardship of the animals we keep.
Given that cognitive testing in farm animals is a relatively new area of interest, there are still many avenues to explore. For example, we know very little about the cognitive abilities of chickens, even though they are some of the most human-raised animals on Earth. Chickens seem to be smarter than most of us think.
We are also beginning to understand how the different management practices used in farm animals are affecting the cognitive development of the animals. Breeding species without maternal care and mixing of social groups can negatively affect cognition. As research increases, we can translate this into better farms to improve the lives of your animals.
Rebecca E Nordquist. Assistant Professor of Veterinary Medicine. Utrecht University.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.