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Social learning by imitation in a reptile (Pogona vitticeps)

Abstract

The ability to learn through imitation is thought to be the basis of cultural transmission and was long considered a distinctive characteristic of humans. There is now evidence that both mammals and birds are capable of imitation. However, nothing is known about these abilities in the third amniotic class—reptiles. Here, we use a bidirectional control procedure to show that a reptile species, the bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps), is capable of social learning that cannot be explained by simple mechanisms such as local enhancement or goal emulation. Subjects in the experimental group opened a trap door to the side that had been demonstrated, while subjects in the ghost control group, who observed the door move without the intervention of a conspecific, were unsuccessful. This, together with differences in behaviour between experimental and control groups, provides compelling evidence that reptiles possess cognitive abilities that are comparable to those observed in mammals and birds and suggests that learning by imitation is likely to be based on ancient mechanisms.

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Acknowledgments

We thank L. Stepniewska, V. Clarke, J. Murray, M. Gácsi for assistance and Boróka Bereczky for reliability coding. Supported by ESF Programme “The Evolution of Social Cognition”.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethics standard

The experiment reported in this paper complies with the laws of the country in which it was performed (UK).

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Correspondence to Anna Wilkinson.

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Kis, A., Huber, L. & Wilkinson, A. Social learning by imitation in a reptile (Pogona vitticeps). Anim Cogn 18, 325–331 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-014-0803-7

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Keywords

  • Reptile
  • Social cognition
  • Bidirectional control procedure