Domestication Makes You Smarter

If you're a guinea pig, at least. A recent experiment found that, even though domesticated guinea pigs have smaller brains than their wild counterparts, they are noticeably better at figuring out the best route through a maze.

A research team at the University of Münster in Germany placed 30 domesticated guinea pigs and 26 wild guinea pigs (or "cavies") in a water maze. The animals had to swim through the maze while using symbols on the walls of the maze to locate a submerged platform. Lars Lewejohann summarizes the results:

Both wild and domestic guinea pigs were able to learn the water maze task. Interestingly, it seems that domesticated animals had the advantage in spatial orientation, while wild cavies were the stronger swimmers. This suggests an adaptation to the man-made environment in domesticated animals that allows more efficient problem solving.

The fact that wild guinea pigs are better swimmers isn't a surprise, but the fact that domesticated guinea pigs are better problem-solvers definitely is. Domestication usually entails smaller brains and simplified behavior patterns, which would generally mean that domesticated animals are, well, dumber than their wild counterparts. As Lewejohann theorizes, the hidden factor might be that the artificial nature of the environment gave the domesticated guinea pigs a strategic advantage.

[via Frontiers in Zoology and a PDF of an earlier version of the paper is here]