SCIENCE
10/02/2014 09:05 am ET Updated Oct 02, 2014

Reptiles, Sharks May Be More Like Us Than You Ever Thought

They may not be the brightest bulbs in the terrarium, but surprising new research shows for the first time ever that reptiles are able to learn by watching others (see video above). Known as "social imitation," this ability is something commonly associated primarily with humans and certain other primates.

Reptiles learn by watching? Before you know it, they'll be saying sharks have personalities.

Actually, another new study has shown that sharks do have personalities, but we'll get to that later.

For the reptile study, which was published in the journal Animal Cognition, European researchers devised a simple experiment involving a dozen bearded dragons and a wooden board with a sliding wire door. The researchers looked to see whether the lizards could learn to use the door simply by watching a "demonstrator" lizard trained to use the door to get to a yummy mealworm.

What happened? Not just one but all eight of the observer lizards successfully copied the actions of the demonstrator. None of the lizards in a control group that hadn't seen the demonstrator were able to open the door.

"This research suggests that the bearded dragon is capable of social learning that cannot be explained by simple mechanisms--such as an individual being drawn to a certain location because they observed another in that location or through observational learning," Dr. Anna Wilkinson of the University of Lincoln's School of Life Sciences in England and the leader of the research team, said in a written statement. "The finding is not compatible with the claim that only humans, and to a lesser extent great apes, are able to imitate."

The shark study was led by the University of Exeter and the Marine Biological Association in England and published in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. It showed for the first time ever that some sharks have strong social connections with others of their species while others tend to be aquatic wallflowers, according to a written statement issued by Exeter University.

The researchers reached the surprising conclusion after observing the social interactions of 10 groups of captive small-spotted catsharks in three different types of habitat.

"We found that even though the sizes of the groups forming changed, socially well-connected individuals remained well-connected under each new habitat," Dr. David Jacoby, a behavioral ecologist now at the Institute of Zoology in London and one of the researchers, said in a written statement. "In other words, their social network positions were repeated through time and across different habitats."

Maybe it's time to show a bit more respect to our scaly friends.

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