Pigs, while arguably cute and adorable, haven’t always been known for their intelligence.
That might be about to change, however, as a group of researchers have observed a family of Visayan warty pigs using sticks to dig and build nests for themselves (y’know, pig nests, not bird nests), showing some species of swine are capable of using tools.
Pigs aren’t really known for building nests – you’d think they’d be more into pigsties. They’re also not known for their love of tools – you’d think they’d be more into rolling around in the dirt, but here we are. Pigs can use tools.
Check it out:
Perhaps pigs have been using tools for years now but none of us noticed because we thought Animal Farm was an allegory, however according to a study in Mammalian Biology, Orwell was onto something, and pigs can use tools.
Meredith Root-Bernstein, conservation ecologist and co-author of the study, first noticed it at a zoo in Paris, where she saw an adult warty pig called Priscilla dig a hole using a stick in her mouth.
She would deposit some leaves, move them to a different spot on the mound, and dig a bit with her nose. At one point she picked up a flat piece of bark about 10 cm x 40 cm that was lying on that mound, and holding it in her mouth, used it to dig, lifting and pushing the soil backwards, quite energetically and rapidly.
Root-Bernstein became fascinated by Priscilla and returned to the zoo several times over a few years, and, along with a team of researchers, manipulated certain things in Priscilla’s pen to see how she and her pen-mates would react.
In 2016, Root-Bernstein observed Priscilla and her female offspring using sticks ‘in a rowing motion’ to dig and build a nest. Unfortunately, Priscilla’s male mate Billie didn’t get on so well, and his attempts to use sticks were ‘clumsy’ compared to the females.
The study also noted the pigs’ digging with sticks was less effective than their usual digging with their snouts or hooves. So why did they bother? Researchers suggested they use the tools as a reward, and it simply ‘feels good’ to them to do so.
Either way, the behaviour was definitely learned in Priscilla’s family, as Visayan warty pigs study each other to learn behaviours.
Root-Bernstein told CNN:
Just using tools at all is very significant! At the time, there were no scientific reports on tool use in any kind of pigs. That doesn’t happen so often either.
We might think that only humans manipulate the environment to affect their own lives, but in different ways many other species do this too.
The question is now, what are you going to do when 30-50 feral hogs – now armed with tools! – run into your yard within three to five minutes while your small kids play?
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Charlie Cocksedge is a journalist at UNILAD. He graduated from the University of Manchester with an MA in Creative Writing, where he learnt how to write in the third person, before getting his NCTJ. His work has also appeared in such places as The Guardian, PN Review and the bin.