I admit that I didn’t really start to appreciate alpacas until I was in a yarn store one day and came across skeins of alpaca wool. Baby alpaca wool, to be exact. So soft! So lovely! I could easily blow wads of cash on that stuff.
I splurged at least a couple of times on alpaca wool and ended up making two of my most favourite scarves:
Besides their amazing wool, I think alpacas are downright adorable. They just fill me with happy. Their gentle demeanour, their huge eyes… They’re like big Muppets.
But I also wonder what goes on in that brain of theirs.
(Image courtesy of dreamlandalpacas.com)
Lo and behold, in the recent issue of the journal Animal Cognition, there is a published study on alpacas!
The research looked at the phenomenon of spatial perseveration errors: a fancy term for the tendency of an animal to stick to a learned route when another route is available. If an animal chooses a new, available route, this suggests that the animal has a degree of cognitive flexibility.
The authors gave alpacas the task of entering a fenced-in enclosure with a barrier across the middle. On either the left or right far side of the barrier was a gap. If the alpaca went through the gap, it encountered a jackpot in the form of a feeder filled with alfalfa. There were 51 alpacas who participated in this study, and some had to go through the gap one, two, three, or four times, before the gap was moved to the opposite end of the barrier. For the test, the authors watched to see if the alpacas headed toward where the original gap used to be, or whether the alpacas moved in the direction toward the new location of the gap.
It turns out the alpacas were able to solve the task: they moved toward the new gap significantly more often than chance. What is particularly interesting is that the alpacas performed better than horses, donkeys, mules, and even dogs, when they were all given a similar task.
Does this mean alpacas are smarter than dogs? Well, no. It means that alpacas showed a little more cognitive flexibility in a particular task. That is, they show some degree of adaptable problem solving ability. Which also means that there’s a lot more to alpacas than simply being animals that stand around looking cute while their wool is being harvested for human use.
I wonder what other surprises alpacas have hidden in that brain of theirs?
Abramson, J. Z., Soto, D. P., Zapata, S. B., & Lloreda, M. V. H. (2018). Spatial perseveration error by alpacas (Vicugna pacos) in an A-not-B detour task. Animal Cognition, 21(3), 433-439.