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Animals that are the least social may be the most innovative 

A recent study from the University of Barcelona has revealed new details about the cognitive skills of ungulates, a group of mammals that includes dromedaries, horses, and goats. These creatures are known for walking on the tips of their toes or hooves, and their innovative ability has been largely unexplored compared to more common study subjects like primates.

The researchers, led by Álvaro López Caicoya, found that ungulates who were less integrated into their social groups and exhibited a greater fear of new objects were more adept at solving the challenge of opening a food container. 

“These findings are in line with recent scientific literature about wild and captive primates, and they show that less socially integrated individuals are less likely to obtain resources such as food, but they are more likely to overcome neophobia – aversion to new things – to improve their situation,” explained Caicoya. “Also, this confirms that ungulates are a promising taxon to test evolutionary theories with a comparative approach.”

Caicoya explained that most comparative studies on the evolution of cognitive abilities have focused on birds and primates. However, the evolutionary pressures faced by animals are not always the same. Exploring the cognitive abilities of other species like ungulates is “essential for understanding the limits and the generalization of specific evolutionary hypotheses.”

The research, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, also involved Montserrat Colell of UBneuro, as well as experts from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the University of Leipzig in Germany.

The investigation was focused on 111 animals from 13 different species of ungulates, including goats, dromedaries, Przewalki horses, giraffes, llamas, sheep, and deer, which lived in captivity in zoos. Each group of animals was tasked with opening a container filled with their favorite food, a challenge designed to test their problem-solving abilities.

In the experiment, the researchers found that dromedaries and goats were the most skilled at opening the container, with 86 and 69 percent of individuals succeeding, respectively. 

“Most of them opened the containers using their nose, muzzle or lips; only nine out of these forty animals used more than one strategy to solve the challenge, such as lifting the cover gently with their lips or throwing the cup to the floor,” explained the researchers.

This groundbreaking study is one of the first of its kind to investigate the cognitive abilities of ungulates, and Caicoya emphasizes the importance of conducting more research that includes a wider variety of species, both captive and wild, as well as more complex challenges. “The ungulates are an exceptional model for comparative research, and this study is only a first approach to the cognition of these species,” said Caicoya.

As our understanding of animal cognition expands, it is crucial to consider the unique characteristics and cognitive abilities of various species to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the evolutionary pressures and adaptations that shape animal behavior. This research serves as an important step in broadening the scope of comparative cognitive research and shedding light on the fascinating world of ungulates.

More about ungulates 

Ungulates are a diverse group of large mammals that are most distinguished by their hooves, which are essentially the tips of their toes. The term “ungulate” comes from the Latin word “ungula”, which means “hoof”. They are spread across several orders and are found all around the world. The group includes several well-known and diverse species such as horses, cattle, pigs, giraffes, camels, deer, and hippopotamuses.

Historically, ungulates were divided into two groups: the odd-toed ungulates (Perissodactyla), which include horses, rhinoceroses, and tapirs, and the even-toed ungulates (Artiodactyla), which include cattle, pigs, giraffes, camels, deer, and hippopotamuses. 

However, modern taxonomic understandings based on genetics rather than physical characteristics have reorganized these groups. For instance, whales and dolphins are now classified as even-toed ungulates due to genetic similarities with this group.

Ungulates play vital roles in their ecosystems. Many are herbivores and are key in controlling vegetation and shaping landscapes. Some are prey for large predators, and their movements and population dynamics can influence predator populations. Many ungulates are also significant to humans economically and culturally, as sources of meat, milk, leather, and as beasts of burden.

Despite the diversity within this group, there are some common traits that many ungulates share. They tend to be large-bodied and have barrel-shaped bodies adapted to processing large amounts of food, particularly plant matter. They often have long legs, which allow them to outrun predators, and they have well-developed senses to detect threats. Many ungulates also have complex social structures and can exhibit a wide range of behaviors.

Animals and innovation 

Innovation is often associated with human endeavors, particularly in technology and business. However, animals also display innovative behaviors, primarily as adaptations for survival, foraging, and social interactions. These innovations are often triggered by changes in the environment, competition for resources, or changes in social structure.

Animal innovation can take many forms:

Tool Use

Certain animals use tools innovatively to acquire food and other resources. The most famous example is probably the New Caledonian crow, which can shape plant matter into hooks to extract insects from tree bark. Similarly, chimpanzees use sticks to extract termites from mounds and rocks to crack open nuts. Dolphins have been observed using sponges to protect their noses while foraging on the sea floor.

Foraging Strategies

Animals often develop new foraging strategies in response to changes in their environment or the availability of food. For example, urban foxes and raccoons have adapted to life in human cities, developing new strategies to find and exploit food resources. Another example is humpback whales, who use a technique known as bubble-net feeding, which involves blowing a ring of bubbles around a school of fish to trap them.

Social Interactions

In social species, innovative behaviors can also occur in the context of social interactions. For example, in meerkat societies, older siblings have been observed teaching younger ones how to handle dangerous prey like scorpions. This teaching behavior is not innate but learned, showing a kind of cultural innovation.

Problem Solving

Many animals are capable of innovative problem-solving. A famous example is Alex, the African Grey Parrot, who was trained by animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg. Alex could understand and use human language to an extent, and he was capable of solving relatively complex problems. Cephalopods like octopuses also show significant problem-solving abilities, such as escaping from closed containers or manipulating objects to obtain food.

Adaptation to Human Environments

Many animals have shown the ability to adapt to human-made environments, often in innovative ways. For example, pigeons in urban areas often use human traffic to help them crack open nuts, while some birds have been known to use cigarette butts in their nests as a form of pest control.

Studying animal innovation can provide insights into animal cognition, the evolution of intelligence, and the adaptability of species to changing environments. It also raises interesting questions about the nature of culture and invention beyond the human species.


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