Pigs can do a joystick operated video task

15-02-2021 | | |
One of the Yorkshire pigs during the trial. - Photo: Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences
One of the Yorkshire pigs during the trial. - Photo: Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences

Pigs are capable of learning a video game task that is operated by a joystick.

That was the outcome of recent US research at Purdue University and the Comparative Cognition Project. They published about the study in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Psychology.

The study involved 2 Panepinto micro-pigs and 2 Yorkshire pigs acquiring a joystick-operated video-game task. Subjects were trained to manipulate a joystick that controlled movement of a cursor displayed on a computer monitor.

Yorkshire and Panepinto barrows

For the study, the scientists made use of the Yorkshire barrows Hamlet and Omelet, as well as the Panepinto barrows Ebony and Ivory. The animals were maintained in an indoor facility on the Pennsylvania State University campus. The Yorkshire barrows (60 and 63 kg at the beginning of the study) were both 3 months old, and housed together in an indoor pen. The Panepinto pigs (43 and 50 kg) were both 24 months old and also were also housed together in an indoor pen.

The experimental apparatus consisted of an IBM 386 personal computer with a 33-cm colour monitor, with a modified 11cm analog joystick shaft and an automatic pellet reward dispenser. All pigs were found to be far-sighted, so to accommodate visual limitations, the computer monitor was placed about 45 cm away from the subjects’ eyes when using the joystick.

The pigs were trained to understand the commands “joystick” and “watch the screen”.

Lead researcher Dr Candace Croney. - Photo: Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences

Lead researcher Dr Candace Croney. – Photo: Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences

Providing feed pellet rewards

The animals were required to move the cursor to make contact with 3-, 2-, or 1-walled targets randomly allocated for position on the monitor, and a feed pellet reward was provided if the cursor collided with a target. The video-task acquisition required conceptual understanding of the task, as well as skilled motor performance.

The scientists wrote: “Overall, all pigs performed significantly above chance on one-walled targets, which indicates that, to some extent, all acquired the association between the joystick and cursor movement. That the pigs achieved the level of success they did on a task that was significantly outside their normal frame of reference in itself remarkable, and indicative of their behavioral and cognitive flexibility. Their high level of social motivation to perform the task was also noteworthy.”

They added: “These results indicate that despite dexterity and visual constraints, pigs have the capacity to acquire a joystick-operated video-game task.”

Interaction with pigs

In an interview with the BBC, the researchers said that the pigs even continued playing when the food reward dispenser broke – apparently for the social contact. Lead researcher Dr Candace Croney told the BBC: “This sort of study is important because, as with any sentient beings, how we interact with pigs and what we do to them impacts and matters to them.”

The researchers added in the scientific article: “Future studies of the cognitive capacities of pigs and other domestic species may benefit from the use of touchscreens or other advanced computer-interfaced technology.”

The research paper was authored by Candace C. Croney, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA; and Sarah T. Boysen, Comparative Cognition Project, Sunbury, OH, USA.

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ter Beek
Vincent ter Beek Editor of Pig Progress / Topic: Pigs around the world