Researchers Anna Kis and colleagues tested for evidence of social learning ability in bearded dragons, and the charismatic reptile passed with flying colors. Some individuals watched a fellow bearded dragon open a trap door to chomp down a delicious mealworm, while others watched the trapdoor open magically without lizard intervention. (The demonstrator lizards were trained previously by the researchers to complete the task). Lizards in the former group succesfully opened the trapdoor, imitating the observed motion, while lizards in the control group could not.
This research contributes results above and beyond that which has been previously observed. Other species of reptile, such as the Florida redbelly turtle, the red-footed tortoise, and the skink, have previously demonstrated social learning. But this study is the first the carefully control for both social influences and "enhancement/emulation effects." That is, it addresses this question: were the lizards watching their fellows perform a task and deliberately imitating them? Or did watching the lizard open the trapdoor simply teach them, "Aha! The trapdoor opens like so!"? This study, with a control scenario that demonstrates the trapdoor operation without a social component, effectively shows that the lizards are learning from a conspecific.
But what if the lizards were simply more interested in a demonstration that involved lizard action? The researchers did include a passive lizard in the control scenario, to control for a scenario whereby the bearded dragons were just more likely to pay attention to a demonstration with another dragon present. But it is still possible that the bearded dragons are more attentive to a demonstration featuring a fellow lizard moving and opening a door than one with a passive lizard.
In any case, this is an extremely interesting study with well-designed controls! As the researchers conclude, this clear evidence of learning by imitation in reptiles (a cognitive trait present in many birds and mammals) indicates that it is an ancestral trait. Why is it present in so many lineages, many of which are asocial? Could it merely be due to high levels of interest and attention paid to conspecifics performing actions, compared to non-social objects moving? Future research may help answer this question!
Behavioural analysis of the bearded dragons in this study revealed that the experimental group copied a specific movement pattern of the demonstrator; this was not observed in any control animal. Thus, our findings suggest that the social learning shown by this species is not goal emulation but fulfils the criteria of imitation (Zentall 2006). In summary, the present findings suggest that reptiles exhibit complex cognitive behaviour equivalent to that observed in mammals and birds and suggests that learning by imitation is based on ancient mechanisms.