Biologist Natalia Borrego Finds that Lions are the Smartest Big Cats

Biologist Natalia Borrego Finds that Lions are the Smartest Big Cats

In a test to find out more about lions cognitive abilities, scientists gave lions a puzzle.  The puzzle?  There’s a wood box in suspension, and inside, is a tasty piece of raw meat.  How could the lions get to it?  They had to yank on a rope that dangled from the box, which would open a trap door.  The trap door would then release the meat, and the lion could have a reward for figuring out the puzzle.

Natalia Borrego, a biologist of South Africa’s University of KwaZulu-Natal, and her team played out this cognitive test with 12 lions.  11 of the 12 figured it out.  7 of them were able to do it themselves, and the other 4 were able to do it once they watched another lion do it, successfully learning by observation.  7 months after the initial test was concluded, they took the same lions and did it again.  10 out of the 11 lions remembered how to pass the test, and gain their meaty reward.

When the test was provided to other big cats, such as tigers and leopards, the animals did not preform as well as the lions had.  What’s the difference?

“This isn’t a task that requires social cognition.  Yet, the social species were better at it, and that suggests there’s something about being social that bolsters cognition overall.” — Natalia Borrego, via Science Mag

Borrego’s hypothesis states that social complexity leads to cognitive complexity.  Lions, of course, live in big packs, and have a hierarchy.  Other big cats, like tigers and leopards, do not share this trait.  Rather, they are creatures that are solidarity and lack the social complexity that a typical lion deals and learns from every day.

Earlier in the year, Science Mag reported on the findings, talking to a few other scientists on the subject.  Some were wondering how effective the test really was.  Primatologist Frans de Waal said that the test itself wasn’t “ecologically relevant”, and that he would like to see tested on a predator-prey task.  Despite this, he still seemed to think that this test was a step in the right direction, and that big cats deserved to have more attention brought to their cognitive abilities.

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