London: Researchers have for the first time found that reptiles are capable of social learning through imitation - an ability so far thought to be unique to humans and advanced primates, such as chimpanzees.
Scientists draw an important distinction between imitation and emulation when studying the cognitive abilities of animals.
In true imitation, the individual 'copying' another's behaviour not only mimics what they see, but also understands the intention behind the action.
In emulation, an animal copies a behaviour without understanding its deeper significance: for example, a parrot reciting the words of its owner.
There is considerable debate about the extent to which non-primates are capable of true imitation.
Now researchers from the UK and Hungary have presented the first compelling scientific evidence that reptiles could be capable of social learning through imitation.
They set out to investigate whether the bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps) is capable of imitating another bearded dragon through a simple experiment using a wooden board which contained a doorway.
All subjects successfully copied the actions of the demonstrator lizard, suggesting for the first time that reptiles exhibit social learning through imitation equivalent to that observed in 'higher' species.
"The ability to learn through imitation is thought to be the pinnacle of social learning and long considered a distinctive characteristic of humans. However, nothing is known about these abilities in reptiles," said lead researcher Dr Anna Wilkinson from the School of Life Sciences, University of Lincoln, UK.
"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.
"The finding is not compatible with the claim that only humans, and to a lesser extent great apes, are able to imitate," she said.
The team included researchers from Eotvos University in Hungary, Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna.
The study was published in the journal Animal Cognition.