No we’re not having a competition to see who can come up with the most obscure title for a post.
I was having coffee with a friend recently and were discussing the various intelligence levels – or at least supposed intelligence levels – of animals, dogs being the main subject of our talk. Apparently a retired psychologist trained his dog to differentiate between over 1000 different words, so that even a stranger could enter the house and instruct the dog to “Fetch Batman!”, and the hound would go and fetch the dark night out of a whole host of other figurines. Every time.
Obviously the talk drifted into the wildlife sphere, and whether or not some of the big cats would have a similar capacity for learning. Some people think lions and leopards are incredibly intelligent, others think they operate far more on instinct, and it is just their senses that are far superior to ours, allowing them to detect and therefore respond to stimuli that are undetectable to humans. We won’t go into that here, so let’s just focus on the question at hand; would a leopard be able to perform the same prodigious feats of learning as the dog described above?
A wonderful book called Elephantoms by Lyall Watson tells how one of the measures of the capacity for learning is percentage growth in brain size from birth to adulthood: the more your brain grows, the more you can learn. Obviously having a big brain to grow from would help.
The book was about elephants, and to my recollection leopards weren’t, sadly, mentioned, so this doesn’t really help us here, as I don’t actually know what the percentage growth in a leopard’s brain is over the course of its lifetime. Given that leopards do need to learn, I imagine their increase in brain size over a lifetime is fairly significant. Note, it’s growth that’s important, not actual brain size. A cow’s brain is larger than a chimpanzees for example, but you don’t often hear of cows being lauded for their remarkable problem solving ability.
What we can look at is just how much learning is required by a leopard in order to survive in the wild.
Something like an impala has to learn to eat this grass, run away when that thing with spots chases you, don’t wander into the thickets at night, and that’s about it. Their need for knowledge is minimal. A predator like a leopard however, particularly since it is a predominantly solitary creature, will need a far deeper bag of tricks to make it through life; knowing what animals are good to hunt and how to hunt them, how to hoist a kill, which trees are best to escape lions into (a lesson the Piva male may have missed)… A lot of these things are learnt through trail and error while some are learnt from watching their mother. Many are simply instinctive behavioural traits that are honed over the course of a lifetime.
Take a look at this video of a leopard and her cub in a forest in Gabon.
The mirror and accompanying camera were set up as part of an animal behaviour experiment, and captured the leopards reacting to the mirror in an incredible way; it suggests that they are self-aware. This is a trait which only the most intelligent creatures are meant to possess, like the great apes, monkeys and elephants.
The same mother (this time with a new cub) was captured on camera again more than two years later:
The cub is the far more curious of the pair, which one would predict, seeing as how it is still in a learning phase of its life. Its reactions to seeing itself in the mirror are incredible to view. Just how much is self-awareness and how much is simple curiosity is hard to say. Any thoughts?
Given that leopards aren’t social or domesticated creatures, I don’t imagine you would ever have a scenario in which a retired psychologist taught his pet leopard 1000 new words. The likelihood is he would teach the leopard “dinner”, only to become dinner himself.
Having observed leopards in the wild though, and knowing how so much of their behaviour is a response to things that they could only have learnt, I’m sure their capacity for learning is high, and there are certainly some parallels between the dog experiment and a leopard’s existence. For the big cat, recognizing the distress call of a duiker and knowing what it means are the same fundamentals of the dog-psychology experiment, i.e. associating a specific sound with the reaction it should elicit.
Since leopards do this already, I’m pretty sure a simple superhero recognition after an audible cue is well within their capabilities. I just wonder how Batman would taste…