Although they lack opposable thumbs, clever pigs were trained by scientists to use a joystick with their snouts. Angry Birds, watch out!
Pigs are some of the smartest mammals out there. They know which people are nice to them and which ones aren’t, and can also distinguish between pigs they know and pigs that are just strangers. In a 2017 study published in the International Journal of Comparative Psychology, researchers found that pigs are up to par with dogs and chimpanzees, in terms of their mental and social abilities.
And, like chimps, pigs are also capable of using tools. Visayan warty pigs, an endangered species native to the Philippines, have been documented digging nests using bark held in their mouth.
Then there’s Pigcasso, a crafty hog rescued from a South African farm, who was trained by her rescuer to make paintings. She’s actually quite the accomplished artist, having sold ten full paintings and even had her own exhibition.
It’s then not that surprising to learn that pigs may also be gamers. Researchers at Purdue University in Indiana trained four pigs to manipulate a joystick with their snouts in order to control a cursor on a computer screen. After they learned how to use the joystick (with a bit of help from tasty treats), the pigs had to play a video game in which they had to use their new joystick skills to maneuver a cursor until it collided with one of four wall-like structures. When the cursor intersected with the structure on the computer screen, the game made a beeping victory sound and pigs received a treat.
“That the pigs achieved the level of success they did on a task that was significantly outside their normal frame of reference is in itself remarkable, and indicative of their behavioural and cognitive flexibility,” the researchers wrote in their study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
However, the pigs didn’t perform nearly as well as non-human primates such as rhesus monkeys, which the researchers pinned to pigs’ far-sightedness and limited dexterity. Using touch screens rather than joysticks might level the dexterity playing field, allowing a more robust comparison between the cognitive abilities of pigs and monkeys.
Nevertheless, studies such as these challenge our conventional notions and stereotypes surrounding animal intelligence. Humans tend to use intelligence to draw the line between what creatures are worthy of their moral consideration, for instance. Objectively speaking, dogs and pigs seem to share many emotional and mental characteristics. It just so happens that one was selected to keep us company while the other was bred to fill our plates.