28 November 2012

Pig intelligence

If you didn’t grow up with pigs in your backyard or weren’t a frequent petting zoo visitor, your first exposure to friendly piglets may have been from Charlotte’s Web or Babe.

Although pigs can’t talk, information from the 1996 documentary The Joy of Pigs and research featured in Animal Behaviour journal prove that pigs are more intelligent than they were originally given credit.

Pigs are one of the few large mammals that live in every part of the world. They have been valuable in Europe as truffle hunters because they can smell the odiferous truffles underground and dig them up. Dogs are used as truffle hunters as well, but pigs are preferable because they love the taste of truffles (and therefore are more motivated to eat them, but their owners must carry staffs to get the pigs to back off once truffles are found.)

Pigs are incorrectly considered dirty animals because they wallow in mud, but this is untrue. They physically cannot sweat, so they wallow in mud as a way to cool off. As far as cleanliness, they are similar to most domesticated animals in that they will not excrete in areas near where they eat or sleep. However, pigs are correctly considered smarter than other domesticated animals.

The Joy of Pigs features a “pig IQ test” that proves they can solve problems. They are considered easier to train than cats and dogs, which can be corroborated by animal behavior experts, satisfied pig owners, and even a YouTube video showing piglets sitting for treats.

A 2009 issue of Animal Behaviour included a study about pigs quickly learning how mirrors work and using reflections to find their food that was hidden from their view. Previous research already showed that pigs could remember where food was stored and would even try to trick other pigs into going the wrong way so they wouldn’t “hog” the food. (Maybe that’s where calling someone a “piggy” when he or she eats a lot comes from?)

The one thing that remains unknown is if pigs pass the “mirror self-recognition test,” meaning if they realize they are looking at themselves in the mirror. Besides sitting on command, pigs can quickly learn other tricks such as spinning in circles and jumping through hoops.

Researchers have found that they even have the capacity to learn things on the first try and commit them to memory. Recent pig genome research revealed that the pig and human genome show similarities, some of which can be seen in our similar hearts and teeth.

Further studies will determine all of the similarities, both physical and behavioral. With more studies such as these being released, the next time families gather around to watch a movie starring pigs, some of the viewers may have curly little tails. And they may be sitting after being given the command.

Erin Fergus | Facebook
Pensacola, FL Erin works as an adjunct instructor in Human Performance at Pensacola State College and group fitness instructor and personal trainer at the YMCA. She holds a master’s in exercise science and is entering her final year of a master’s in journalism. She became a vegetarian in 2001 after viewing PETA demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and she has transitioned closer to veganism since 2008. Some of her previous work has been featured on livestrong.com. Her favorite activities include vegan cooking, going to the beach, playing piano and spending time with her Cocker Spaniel.

Photo credit: cc: flickr.com/photos/the_farnsworths