Cerebrum Article

Elephants That Paint, Birds That Make Music

Do Animals Have an Aesthetic Sense?

A magpie singing to itself embellishes its song with trills, overtones, and a unique closing phrase, and animals as diverse as elephants, chimpanzees, and seals appear to enjoy painting. Two Australian scientists—Lesley J. Rogers, D. Phil., D.Sc., professor of neuroscience and founder of the Research Centre for Neuroscience and Animal Behaviour at the University of New England, Australia, and Gisela Kaplan, Ph.D., also a professor at the Research Centre—write that, in the face of growing evidence for animals’ complex cognitive abilities, we should not be too hasty in deciding whether what is art to us might also be art to them.

Published: October 1, 2006
Bowerbird decorates nest
This male satin bowerbird (right) has decorated his bower with blue plastic debris to attract a female. © Michael & Patricia Fogden / Corbis

Some forty years ago, the first gallery exhibition of paintings not of but by chimpanzees shocked the art world and precipitated much debate. The animals had produced abstract paintings pleasing to the human eye. Did this mean they had an aesthetic sense, an appreciation of beauty? Elephants, too, can paint—sales of their canvases are now being used to raise money for zoos and conservation—and so can seals and several other species. Is this really art, or are the paintings more or less accidentally pleasing to us but not to the animal itself? How can we decide whether these strokes of paint are art or mere daubing, made without awareness or any degree of artistic motivation or aesthetic sense? A similar question can be asked about other forms of art, especially music. Birdsong, for example, may be music to our ears, but do the birds appreciate it as an art form?

If research were to prove that animals have an aesthetic sense, we could gain valuable insights into the animals’ level of awareness. Creation and appreciation of art are aspects of consciousness that we have tradition-ally viewed as purely human activities, ones that express our highest cognitive abilities. If animals share at least some aspects of this ability, we will have to look upon them with more respect and perhaps change the ways we treat them. Research on animal art involves studying how the brain perceives sensory information and how we decide whether something is beautiful or has symbolic meaning. Studies in this area also stem from curiosity about the evolution of artistic expression. Looking at the similarities between the art of early humans and that of some primates causes us to wonder if art may have origins that extend back in evolutionary time to the apes, or even earlier.

Mainstream science has yet to be convinced that animals have an aesthetic sense, but these days some scientists who study animals are increasingly convinced that they do have higher cognitive abilities. At the moment, interest is focused on the abilities of animals to solve problems, use tools, and communicate in meaningful ways, but some researchers have dared to suggest that animals may play because they find it pleasurable to do so. Doing something for pleasure, rather than for survival, is part of how we define the act of creating art. But just as we must be open to the controversial idea that animals can create art, we must also be careful of the pitfalls in reaching conclusions too soon.

What Do Animals See When They Paint?

Scientists who study animal behavior have learned that many animals, from fish to apes, invent new patterns of behavior, as did the first Japanese macaque that washed potatoes to remove the dirt before eating them, and that others, especially birds and mammals, behave in ways that depend on forming and using mental representations of both their physical environment and their social context. Some species, it seems, use symbols; others communicate intentionally, for example using specific vocalizations to refer to specific predators. All of these abilities lay a basis for the claim that animals possess consciousness, but they do not prove that the animal is capable of both creating “artistic” productions and appreciating them as mentally and aesthetically pleasing or conveying a symbolic meaning. When we provide an elephant in a zoo or a chimpanzee in a research facility with a brush and canvas, are the paintings they produce art to them, as well as to us?

The first step in deciding whether an animal might have produced a painting as art is to find out exactly what that animal can see. If an animal seems to use color aesthetically but either lacks color vision entirely or is able to perceive only some colors, we would have to conclude that any aesthetic use of color is accidental, however pleasing it may appear to us.

Most paintings by elephants, for example, involve the use of several colors applied in strokes to the canvas, using either a brush or the trunk. Individual elephants have immediately recognizable styles, which may reflect each elephant’s stereotypical patterns of trunk movement. It is not surprising that elephants are adept at using a brush, since, in captivity at least, they use many different tools.

But elephants cannot see the same range of colors that we do. Recently, Shozo Yokoyama, Ph.D., and colleagues at Emory University measured the visual pigments in the photoreceptor cells of the elephant retina and found that they have only two pigments, compared to our three (we have red, green, and blue cones). Hence elephants are like certain color-blind people, called deuteranopes, who lack one visual pigment and, consequently, see a smaller range of colors than most people do. No behavioral tests have yet been made of the color vision of elephants, but we know that color-blind people with similar eyes detect only two primary colors (blue and yellow) and do not see intermediate colors. When blue and yellow are mixed, these people see white or gray, or one of the two basic hues. Humans with normal color vision see four primary colors (blue, green, yellow, and red) and a range of intermediate colors.

Elephants evolved this two-pigment (dichromatic) color vision because they are active during both day and night. So that they can see well under both conditions, they traded off some color vision for better vision in low levels of light (at night in moonlight and at dawn and dusk). Being active in the daytime and at night is also true of dogs (at least in their original natural environment), and they also have only two visual pigments, allowing them to distinguish bluish-violet colors from yellowish-red colors but not the range of colors between these two. To judge the artworks of such species, we have to dramatically reduce the range of colors that we see, which, in our opinion, considerably reduces the artistic quality. Color painting seems to be an inappropriate form of expression for animals with limited color vision.

Dogs (and elephants too) can see movement well and might prefer to express art—if that is what they do—in moving pictures. We also must remember that the dog’s eyes see well at a distance but cannot focus on close objects. Anything closer to them than about a foot to a foot and a half—as paintings on canvas made by holding a brush between their teeth would be—is out of focus. They use their sense of smell to recognize objects and other animals, so any purely visual representation would lack an essential quality.

Seals in captivity have also been trained to paint, and they use colors too (see examples at www.eagleandowl.com/artan/).  But seals are completely color-blind, since they have only one color pigment, green cones, in the cells of their retina. The same is true of whales and the related dolphins, also painters in some zoos. (Since whales and seals are not related species, their monochromatic vision is likely to have evolved for life in the sea, but it is a puzzle why they have green and not blue cones, given that the latter would allow better vision in the open ocean.) Any claim that these species see the colors in the works of art they produce is, therefore, false. This raises a thorny point, because paintings by seals and dolphins are very similar to those by species that can see some color, such as elephants. Perhaps even paintings by species with two color pigments are made without the animals’ paying any attention to the colors they use.

Other species see the same range of colors that we do. Primates that are active during the day, such as chimpanzees, are one example. Still other species see an even greater range of colors than we do. Because most birds have four visual pigments, we can only begin to imagine their color-rich world. Ravens have been trained to paint using a brush held in their beak and they can see all of the colors that they apply to the canvas.

Some species of birds also behave in ways indicating that they possess consciousness. Ravens follow the direction of another bird’s gaze, or even that of a human, to see what might be of interest, and they can solve complex problems. One species of raven, resident in New Caledonia, not only uses tools to probe notches in trees for insects but makes the tools; they use their beaks to cut probes from the leaves of pandanus palms. In fact painting by tame ravens probably depends on this ability to use tools and so is an extension of their adaptation for survival in the wild. Given this evidence of intelligent behavior, we should keep an open mind about the ability of birds to appreciate art.


Do the elephants, seals, and other animals that have been trained to paint use these paintings to represent anything in a symbolic way? None of the works depict anything that we can recognize easily, if at all. The only way that we can answer this question is to ask an animal to tell us what it has drawn. Obviously, to do so we must turn to animals that have been taught to communicate using sign language or by pointing to symbols that signify words. The very fact that apes can learn to communicate with us in these ways shows they have the ability to use abstract symbols.

If signing apes can tell us what they have drawn or painted and if the picture shows any hint of the object, or emotion, that they say it is, we might be convinced that they have indeed created a representation. At least some such examples exist. The chimpanzee Moja, raised and taught to sign by Beatrix Gardner, Ph.D., and Allen Gardner, Ph.D., sketched what she said was a bird, and it did show a likeness, with a body and wings. You can see this drawing at  www.awionline.org/pubs/quarterly/su02/moja.htm. Moja used the same schemata when she drew birds on subsequent occasions.

Koko, the famous sign language–trained gorilla, painted what she said was a bird, and it too looked like a body with wings (although perhaps too many wings). We know that Koko, who was able to communicate what she had painted, is capable of abstract thought, because she signs meaningfully about states of mind and behavior (for example, feeling “mad,” “hurt,” “sad”). Another language-trained gorilla, Michael, has used color symbolically. He was given a variety of colored paints and often painted in color, but he chose to use only black and white to paint what he called “Apple chase,” a representation of his black-and-white dog named Apple. Examples of paintings by Koko and Michael can be seen at https://www.koko.org/blogs/kokopix-photo-blog/

Human art is produced for pleasure. It seems that painting may be pleasurable to animals as well, because animals in zoos often reduce behavior that indicates stress, such as repetitive swaying and self-mutilation, when they are taught to paint. This could, of course, be the result of receiving extra attention from humans, rather than pleasure in the act of painting or in appreciating the painting produced.

But chimpanzees may well obtain pleasure from looking at their artworks. Zoologist Desmond Morris, D.Phil., observed one chimpanzee that would scream with what appeared to be rage and frustration if he was interrupted before he had finished his picture. If drawing materials are available, young chimpanzees will start to scribble spontaneously, without receiving any food rewards, at around one to two years old—about the same age when human infants begin to scribble. The scribbles of the chimpanzee continue to develop complexity, as do those of the human child, but the end point is different. Most chimpanzees stop developing their drawings at a point when the artwork looks rather formless to us, whereas the human child goes on to make easily recognizable representations.

The drawing of the bird by Moja can be compared to the cave paintings of early humans. It is by no means as detailed or accurate a representation of an animal as the Paleolithic cave paintings of bears, bison, antelopes, and so on, but some cave paintings are almost as sketchy, as in the case of ungulates depicted on the Réseau Clastres chamber of the Niaux Cave in Southern France, as well as engravings in Gabillou Cave, also in Southern France (which can be seen in The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art, by David Lewis-Williams [Thames & Hudson, 2002]). We might, therefore, see the chimpanzee’s art as a precursor to that of early humans, and if more examples come to light, we might be forced to push back the origins of art to a much earlier time than currently believed.

From Animals to Humans

So far we have discussed only painting by animals that are living under artificial conditions, but we can also find examples of what might be called art in the natural behavior of some species.  Bowerbirds, for example, arrange objects of selected shapes and colors on their bower as a means of attracting a partner. They have been seen to arrange and rearrange these trinkets, suggesting to some human observers that they may be doing so to meet their own artistic taste. The satin bowerbird also paints the inside walls of its bower with pigments made from a mixture of plant extracts and saliva. Like the bowerbird’s decorated home, paintings by elephants, seals, dogs, ravens, and other species have no recognizable connections to depictions of reality and hence no known symbolism. They are art to us in the sense of modern art, abstract expressionism, but we are far from knowing whether they are art to the “artists.”  It would be unwise to jump to a conclusion, but the growing evidence of complex behavior and higher cognitive abilities in a wide range of species was unexpected no more than twenty years ago. We should examine the evidence for art with a critical eye, but we should not reflexively close the door to unexpected discoveries.

Is Birdsong Music or Speech?

For humans, music is another essential art. Birdsong is certainly music to us, but it is a matter of debate whether the songs that birds or other animals produce are music to them. In the late 1960s, researchers began to accept that there could be a continuum of cognitive abilities from mammals to humans and to seek evidence of what animals could do. But birds, which were thought to be inferior to mammals and primates, did not fit into this equation. Only recently have scientists begun to realize that many bird species are highly intelligent and may perhaps be aware of the musical qualities of their own songs.

The study of song was not always the province of neurobiology. Up to World War II, songbirds (passerines) were studied in music departments. Researchers were interested in the birds’ musical lexicon, their tonal encoding, interval, and rhythm, and how they remembered crucial aspects of sound, either for production of song or for discrimination in listening to it. Oddly, the budgerigar (a small parrot rather than a songbird) was often used as a model species, and that tradition has not completely died. More recent papers describe the budgerigar’s astonishing abilities to discriminate musical characteristics of sound (formants, sine waves, timbre, harmonics, and even quarter tones) and to remember these over long periods of time. Judging by the high degree of accuracy and memory shown in budgerigars, it is even possible that they have perfect pitch.

But musicologists are no longer the only ones who study birdsong. Through neurobiological research beginning in the 1970s, evidence mounted that songbirds are capable of a cognitive process known as vocal learning, which depends on auditory feedback mechanisms that can store sounds and commit them to memory. This special ability is quite rare, having been identified in only songbirds, parrots, and humming-birds, as well as cetaceans, bats, and humans. The main vocal repertoire of songbirds is expressed in song, but their communication system also includes other vocalizations, such as food, distress, and alarm calls. The range of these songs and calls varies markedly among orders and species.

These two approaches to the study of song—musical and neurobiological—create a quandary. The neurobiological tradition equates song with speech (vocal learning), while musicologists regard bird vocalizations as song, belonging to music. In research, speech is tied to cognitive ability, whereas music is linked with creativity. Human beings can learn language, but not all humans possess musical ability.

Learning to Sing

The question of how, when, and to what extent song is learned has been investigated from many different angles. In a classic study, Peter Marler, Ph.D., taught juvenile white-crowned sparrows to sing by having them listen to playback of tape-recorded song. He demonstrated that such learning was limited to the first fifty days of a sparrow’s life, which established the concept of a sensitive period in song learning and inspired other researchers to conduct further research on the importance of this time window for development.

Songbirds engage in complex serial learning not only of their own songs but also of their neighbors’ (and competitors’) songs, and some birds can learn complete songs even if they are exposed to only snippets of information, phrase-pairs. Yet when a control group was exposed to all the elements of their species-specific song, but each of those elements was presented singly rather than in phrase-pairs, the birds failed to develop normal, full song. In other words, songbirds not only learn; they also use the information that they encounter creatively. Sound learning is also multidimensional—social interaction during the sensitive period is often required for normal song development. For instance, in 1993 Patrice Adret, Ph.D., at the University of Chicago, demonstrated that showing one male zebra finch the head of another male on a video screen roused the experimental bird to learn song and produce it. The type of tutor can play a decisive role in shaping song, and juvenile birds also appear to make choices from whom they will learn. For example, zebra finches prefer to be tutored by their fathers, rather than by another adult male, and they prefer more-aggressive tutors. Researchers have also found that pairing auditory and visual cues enhances song learning in nightingales, leading to more reproduction of the song and a larger song repertoire.

Putting this all together, we conclude that the quality of a song that is learned depends on the quality of tuition, on practice, on multi-model presentation, and on social environment. Many birdsongs are crystallized after they are learned, and the perfected song, at least in male breeding song, may be very stereotyped. In this sense, birdsong would probably not qualify as creative and thus could not be called art. The most common human notion of creativity demands that an individual create something new, something unique, for it to be considered art.

Reinvention, Improvisation, and Play

Many bird species, however, improvise and keep reinventing their song, reinvigorating it with new elements, phrases, and sequences. New syllables and phrases, even new repertoire, may be produced in each successive season, as is the case among nightingales and canaries. The brown thrasher is thought to hold the record, at close to 2,000 song types. Nightingales organize the elements of their songs into hierarchies and follow rules of how the songs are constructed, similar to the way humans use syntax. In addition, each individual bird invents its own songs and so creates aspects of singing (new phrases or “sentences”), which can be used to identify the individual bird.

Some birds continue to change their repertoire throughout life and, in a few extreme cases (as in the brown thrasher), may never ever repeat the same song. Because scientists who study animal behavior, including song, traditionally search for its function, none of these highly variable songs or the changes in repertoire of the best singers have ever been considered “creative” or “art.”

Since most research has focused on species in which only the male sings— and he does so only during the breeding season—song has been said to serve the bird’s purpose of holding territory and competing against other males to secure a female for mating. However, in some species singing does not seem to be associated with reproduction or territoriality. Some birds simply sing to themselves when they are alone. This behavior does not seem to fit the assumption that all animal behavior must serve a function that aids survival, leading us to wonder if such singing could be a form of leisure activity or play, which would bring us closer to the idea of creativity, of music for music’s sake.

music-style notation
This transcription of a magpie’s song (above) shows its unique “signature phrase.” Courtesy of Gisela Kaplan

This kind of singing has been observed repeatedly. Irene Pepperberg, Ph.D., who has studied the vocal productions of African Grey parrots for decades, noted that the hand-raised parrots engage in sound play, most often when they are alone but sometimes when humans are present. The sound play can include both mimicking human speech and making parrot sounds.

Gisela Kaplan’s research on the Australian magpie has also found that a major proportion of singing in magpies occurs when their off-spring have grown up and territorial defense is not of immediate con-cern. Indeed, some of the most beautiful song by magpies comes when the bird is alone and self-expression is at its peak. At times, this song is skillfully embellished with mimicked sequences and phrases, which we call cadenzas in music. Some of Kaplan’s recorded magpie songs certainly can be described in musical terms—the bird’s voice moves across four octaves, varies its phrasing between staccato and legato, and embellishes the sequence with vibrato, trills, or deep overtones. Moreover, when a song is complete, an individual bird will end the song with a closing phrase all its own. It sings this signature phrase in much the same way that painters put their names or initials on completed paintings.

Such playful, even creative, singing—particularly if it is not connected to reproduction or territorial functions—is ignored by many researchers, but it is celebrated by others. David Rothenberg’s book Why Birds Sing: A Journey Through the Mystery of Bird Song (Basic Books, 2005) identifies some birdsong as evidence of creativity, and the author, himself a musician, says his own creativity has been inspired by bird-song. In a book edited by Nils Wallin, Bjørn Merker, and Steven Brown and titled The Origins of Music (MIT Press, 1999), the ever-changing song of the humpback whale is described as music and as evidence of a creative process, rather than as constrained by function. Whether we should label as music the changing songs of birds and whales and call the process creativity (that is, art) is still a matter of conjecture. Such performances have no name in main-stream science today, but scientists are starting to push against the barriers.

Implications of Animals as Artists

At the current state of scientific knowledge, we can say that many species of birds and mammals have much more complex ways of behaving than were thought possible even a decade ago. Animals certainly can be trained to produce paintings that we may wish to call art, and we have some evidence that apes, at least, draw images that to some degree match what they tell us they represent.  How extensive these abilities are across species and whether they occur in animals in the natural environment remain unknown. We suggest that, to avoid making mistaken judgments, we should consider each species separately, taking into account what it sees and hears as well as its ability to perform other functions that we associate with consciousness.

Does it matter whether animals have an aesthetic sense or may be motivated to create art?  And if animals do have an aesthetic sense and produce art, are there any implications for research, for our scientific theories, or for the way we treat them? Because scientists have traditionally assumed that the ability to create and enjoy art does not exist in animals, researchers still know next to nothing about what such an ability might be like. But we would answer all of these questions with a cautious yes.

First of all, scientific theories about animal behavior would have to be changed. Human creativity and art are generally associated with leisure, not with fulfillment of basic survival needs, and the ability to create art is related to more-general arguments about cognitive ability. So, if animals are shown to have an aesthetic sense, we might have to step outside the scientific framework that seeks survival value in all aspects of an animal’s behavior and that draws a clear line between the capabilities of human brains and those of other species.

Moreover, we can see implications for theories about the origins of art, because aspects of artistic expression may have been present much earlier than the evolution of modern humans. Finally, animal welfare paradigms could be affected. For example, we might realize that sounds and colors matter as much as structures in the way housing for animals is organized, whether in zoos, research facilities, or other human settings, and that we should have a much broader perspective on the types of activities we make available to these animals. Ultimately, finding that some animals share a sense of aesthetics—as humans use the term—might well change our sensitivities and attitudes to animals overall, offering further evidence to dismantle the outworn claim that animals are “just” animals.