Pigs are highly intelligent animals with an arsenal of skills that include sniffing out truffles, swimming, and demonstrating empathy. Now scientists have discovered another surprising talent that pigs can develop: gaming!
This past Thursday, Frontiers in Psychology published an extensive study of pig intelligence by Candace Croney, director of Purdue University’s Center for Animal Welfare Science, and Sarah Boysen, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University. Research for this paper began in the 90s by scientists working with Stanley Curtis, a “legendary swine researcher” who passed away in 2010.
The report discusses the perimeters of the video game experiment and introduces us to the pig participants. Involved in the study were two Yorkshire pigs named Hamlet and Omelet, and two Panepinto micro pigs named Ebony and Ivory.
The pigs played a “rudimentary joystick-operated video game task” that was initially created to test chimpanzees and rhesus monkeys. The object of the game was to move a joystick that controlled the cursor on the computer screen with their snouts. If they manipulated the cursor so that it hit a wall, a food dispenser would reward the pigs with a treat.
All the pigs eventually mastered the game, although some performed better than others once the difficulty level increased. For the pigs to have demonstrated such remarkable success on a task that is so alien from their usual activities is “indicative of their behavioral and cognitive flexibility”.
The study notes that the pigs did not do as well as the monkeys or chimpanzees, but this is likely due to the comparatively limited dexterity of their snouts.
Pigs can be trained to manipulate joysticks, but for the pigs to independently make the connection between what they are doing to the joystick, the screen, and the reward is something animals cannot be taught. They either get it or they don’t.
Now, it may seem strange to invest time teaching pigs to play video games but understanding the cognitive capabilities of these animals is an ethical endeavor and will help improve pig welfare, which is one of the main goals for this research. “This sort of study is important because, as with any sentient beings, how we interact with pigs and what we do to them impacts and matters to them,” Croney states.