Can You Train Your Pet Lizard?

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When referring to a lizard’s intelligence, the general consensus is there is not much going on upstairs. Sure there are inherited instincts with hardwired chemical and hormone reactions for such tasks as mating, defending ones territory, and fight or flight from predators, but what about higher levels of thought? An average lizard’s day to day activity consists of sleeping, eating, basking, followed by more sleep! You would think these creatures would not have a need to evolve a higher level of cognitive thinking like problem solving and self-awareness.

Take the bearded dragon, its brain is the size of a pencil eraser and it spends most of its time asleep in the arid, rocky, semi-desert regions of Australia. Over the last 30 years the bearded dragon has become a very popular exotic pet mainly for its calm, almost dim witted, easy going nature; but are bearded dragons true thinkers? Well maybe not at the level of our Great Ape relatives, but new research has for the first time provided evidence that reptiles could be capable of social learning through imitation; the act of learning by watching something else do it first.

The ability to acquire new skills through the ‘true imitation’ of another’s behaviour is thought to be unique to humans and advanced primates, such as chimpanzees. Now researchers from the UK and Hungary have presented the first compelling scientific evidence that reptiles could also 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. One lizard was trained to act as a ‘demonstrator’, opening a wire door which covered a hole in a wooden board. The door could be moved horizontally along sliding rails to the left or right by use of the head or foot. The demonstrator was then rewarded with food (a mealworm) on the other side of the door.

The subjects were divided into an experimental group and a control group. The experimental group watched the demonstrator lizard approaching the test apparatus and opening the door with a sliding head movement.

All eight experimental subjects went on to successfully open the sliding door, pushing it to the same side they had observed. This was a significant finding because none of the control group subjects did this.

A key difference between the control and experimental groups was that, while sliding head movement occurred in the case of all experimental subjects, it was never observed in the control subjects. As this was the movement that the demonstrator performed in order to open the sliding door, this suggests that experimental subjects imitated an action that was not part of their spontaneous behaviour.

These findings are shocking! Lead researcher Dr. Anna Wilkinson from the School of Life Sciences, University of Lincoln, UK, said: “This, together with differences in behaviour 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.”

‘Reptiles and mammals evolved from a common ancestor and the investigation of similarities and differences in their behaviour is essential for understanding the evolution of cognition,’ Dr Wilkinson explained.

The team included researchers from Eötvös University in Hungary, Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna.

This article was adapted from the original article by the University of Lincoln published September 30, 2014 and can be found HERE

Journal Reference:

  1. Anna Kis, Ludwig Huber, Anna Wilkinson. Social learning by imitation in a reptile (Pogona vitticeps)Animal Cognition, 2014; DOI: 1007/s10071-014-0803-7