Pigs have shown “highly developed learning abilities” in a new study by researchers in Vienna.
The farm animals are known to be socially competent and capable of learning, but scientists say the combination of those two skills – ie, learning through observation – hadn’t been studied enough.
But by making Kunekune piglets observe their mother or aunt as they completed a task, scientists also discovered that pigs have a “remarkable” long-term memory.
Studies have shown that pigs search for food in places their peers have eaten from previously, and while that displays a degree of peer learning, scientists from the Messerli Research Institute of Vetmeduni wanted to see if the animals could could demonstrate an understanding of another pig’s behaviour.
“In contrast to most previous studies, in which the animals learned from peers, the present study tested piglets after they observed their mother or their aunt in the process of solving a manipulative task,” Ludwig Huber, the study’s director, said.
“The task involved opening the sliding door of a food box in order to get at a piece of food.”
The piglets were divided into three groups of six, with two placed in separate observer compartments where they could watch their mother or aunt attempt to open the door using one of two possible techniques, while the third group had nobody to learn from – they had to figure it out themselves.
The non-observers used all possible techniques, which confirmed that there was no predisposition or bias to the task among piglets.
But the other piglets either copied the push direction, or both direction and position together, that they had seen demonstrated by their relative – a type of behaviour that hasn’t been demonstrated frequently among animals, and never before among pigs.
To make the results more interesting, the piglets performed better if they weren’t tested on the task until the next day.
“Apparently, they memorised what they observed and could correctly reproduce it when needed,” the scientists said.
And if the piglets’ learning abilities were in any doubt, the non-observer group also demonstrated something remarkable – the ability to remember the solution after attempting the puzzle in various different ways.
The animals were even able to replicate the technique after half a year had been allowed to pass.
“That indicates a well-functioning long-term memory,” Huber said.
The researchers believe that the Kunekune pigs may have an advantage over other pigs, though, given their free-ranging nature.
They said: “The pigs live in natural family groups under free-ranging conditions. This appears to trigger an existing aptitude for social intelligence among these animals. It would be worthwhile to consider the positive effects of learning from older animals in commercial pig farming, for example when making improvements to the housing conditions.”