The wildly creative minds of animals

Ariella Hyman-Fessler

For much of scientific and philosophical history, academics have viewed creativity as a trait inherent in the evolution of humans, but not possessed by other species. This view, bolstered by a historically inadequate commitment to animal behavior research, has contributed to theories regarding the contemplative ‘superiority’ of humans and subsequently, their perceived right to exercise dominion over nonhuman animals.

However, a recent surge in animal behavioral studies have provided significant evidence against this outdated perspective. We have discovered, unsurprisingly, that much like human beings, many nonhuman animals exhibit behaviors suggesting that they, too, engage in forms of creative and artistic expression. This occurs in their natural habitats as well as animal sanctuaries, zoos, and other human-designed surroundings.

In the wild, we have seen nonhuman animals display many different signs of creative and artistic expression. For example, male bowerbirds reveal their artistic prowess by building tall, tower-like structures that they use to attract female mates. The appearances of these towers are varied between both regions and individual birds. This suggests that communities of birds operate under a set of aesthetic norms and that each bird possesses distinct preferences for the shape, size, and color of their structure. Similarly, a variety of nonhuman animals, from songbirds to amphibians, use elaborate mating calls to attract their mates. Once again, females prefer some calls over others, and these preferences inform who they ultimately mate with. 

Generally, animal behavior in the wild demonstrates a preference for particular visual and auditory stimuli. Paired with the exhibition of other creative behaviors (including teamwork, collective problem-solving, and joint construction of living edifices), this indicates that nonhuman animals possess broadly creative and distinctly artistic instincts and impulses, even in the absence of humans.

Animals living alongside humans and under human supervision have also demonstrated many different types of creative abilities. Using visual art as a form of enrichment for a variety of nonhuman animals, many sanctuaries, museums, and zoos have facilitated the production of paintings as vibrant and complex as the works of Mark Rothko and Franz Kline. However, rather than being created by world-renowned 20th-century artists, these pieces reflect the artistic impulses of elephants, armadillos, naked mole rats, leopard geckos, lions, grizzly bears, giant pandas, and many others.

This artistic enrichment also often possesses design elements meant to tap into animals’ natural hunting and feeding behaviors. As a result, many zookeepers describe animals’ involvement in these activities as voluntary and instinctive rather than coerced. Some animals do not enjoy painting on canvases, and establishments that involve all kinds of animals in this type of art likely have profit, rather than these animals’ well-being as a primary motivator. However, many organizations opt for alternative activities, including weaving ribbons and other colorful materials into previously foraged nests (zebra finches), cutting leaves and flower petals into shapes (fire ants), and carving wooden logs (beavers). 

Similarly, a variety of nonhuman animals living in captivity often show evidence of beat perception. When exposed to music, they move, or ‘dance,’ to the rhythm! This behavior suggests that animals possess a sense of musicality and can recognize and appreciate sound patterns similarly to humans. Even some species that do not engage in observable vocal learning during their development, some sea lions, for example, still respond to shifts in rhythm in experimental settings. This demonstrates that a sense of musicality exists intrinsically as a result of evolution for all kinds of animals, not only human beings.

Nonhuman animals’ possession of creative, artistic, and musical impulses has significant implications for psychological and philosophical thought. For instance, if one’s moral theory makes creativity a primary element of humanity’s supremacy, recognition of nonhuman animals’ ability to be creative leads to fundamental shifts in individuals’ moral statuses. Furthermore, if one’s theory of psychological development attributes musical talent to differences in vocal learning experience, knowledge of nonvocal animals’ ability to sense and move to music calls into question a key tenet of the mind’s maturation. 

Regardless of the specifics, a thorough understanding of animals’ creative and artistic capacities casts doubt on the very basis of our society’s ethical, scientific, and political engagement with nonhuman animals. Only widespread education regarding nonhuman animals’ psychological capabilities and a fundamental restructuring of our relationship with other species can bring justice to these highly intelligent creatures and allow us to build towards a sustainable, ethical world.

Sources: ArtNews, BBC, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, National Geographic, One Green Planet, United States National Library of Medicine