Move over, Wilbur, there’s a new pig in town.
In the classic children’s book Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White introduces readers to a very smart little piglet.
As someone who loved the book in 3rd grade, I was only a little surprised to learn that pigs actually are genuinely very smart!
Earlier this year, pathobiologists from the Center for Animal Welfare Science at Purdue University in Indiana gave 4 pigs a test originally designed for primates.
They wanted to see if pigs could combine multiple complex tasks to earn a treat.
As Rebecca Nordquist, the Assistant Professor of Veterinary Medicine at Utrecht University explains:
The animals need to understand the link between moving around a joystick and what’s happening on a computer screen, and then link what’s happening on the screen to getting a reward.
The four pigs tested were all able to do that to some extent, showing off their smarts.
Each time the pigs successfully completed their task, the researchers gave them a harder one, like progressive levels in Tetris or Mario.
Now pigs, of course, do not have opposable thumbs. They were trained to move the joystick with their snouts.
Unsurprisingly, and probably for a variety of reasons, while the pigs were initially successful, they did not perform as well as their monkey predecessors.
Pigs have long been reputed as being very smart, but there are certain tasks that tend to challenge them.
Again, Professor Nordquist explains:
Mirror use, for instance, is not something all pigs can master, and while they can use simple geometric shapes to decide what response to give, recognising other pigs from photographs proves too difficult.
This was surprising since other farm animals like sheep and cattle are able to recognise their sheep and cattle friends on photographs.
Aside from the fact that it’s really bloody interesting, why do scientists care how smart pigs are?
For three reasons, the first being that it’s just really bloody interesting to get into the mind of a pig.
The second reason is a bit more practical. As farmers try out more ethical and socially responsible farming methods, they need to make sure that what they’re doing actually does benefit the animal.
For example: What good is letting pigs roam free if they can’t easily navigate the larger environment to find the food and water that they need?
And the third reason is to help us understand the pig’s “intrinsic value.”
Professor Nordquist describes this as:
Instead of monetary value as an agricultural product or value to a human as a companion, this is the value it has for being itself, just as a pig, with all of the piggy things it does, such as oinking, rooting for things like truffles, socialising, and natural intelligence.
It makes sense. Because the more we understand a thing, the more we love it.
And whether a pig’s intelligence makes people forgo the bacon or not, it could go a long way towards how the animals are treated.
Maybe that’s wrong–maybe they should all be treated as though they’re as smart or smarter than us, simply because they’re alive. But the reality is that humans assign intrinsic value, and so researchers want to make sure that value is weighted correctly.
Either way, it’s pretty remarkable that pigs can play video games. I would like to challenge one to a friendly round of Dr. Mario–truffles are on me if they win.
Did this absolutely blow your mind, or do you have one of those pets who you’re sure is smarter than most people? Share your thoughts in the comments.