Dinosaurs shared cognitive traits with dogs — and humans

A new study found that the important cognitive ability to take another's visual perspective likely originated in dinosaurs, at least 60 million prior to mammals.
Paul Ratner
Two dinosaurs looking into the distance

Credit: DariuszSankowski / Pixabay 

  • Visual perspective-taking is an important part of cognition.
  • This ability is shared by humans, apes, dogs and crows.
  • A new study found the ability likely originated in dinosaurs at least 60 million years before mammals.

Humans tend to regard their own species as the yardstick by which all others are to be measured. We often think our unique abilities, especially our intellectual prowess, are what set us apart from others in the animal kingdom.

One aspect of that mastery is the ability to adopt visual perspective taking, the consideration of what another person can see from a different point of view, considered an advanced cognitive skill.

This sounds like a very simple thing, but it’s actually fundamental to how we interact with other people. This is because, if you can track what someone else can see, then you have a better idea of what that person knows.

It is especially important in situations like tracking, combat, or hunting in a group (as well as more benign situations, like playing hide and seek or searching for a lost ball).

Now, a new study from Sweden’s Lund University challenges the notion that this skill is exclusively mammalian and suggests that dinosaurs likely developed this ability at least 60 million years prior to mammals. The significance of the conclusion is in the potential reassessment of the history of cognition. 

Visual perspective taking takes place during situations when you notice someone looking at something outside their immediate view. You are likely to follow the direction of their gaze to check out what they are looking at. If you can’t see what they see directly, you might even reposition yourself to make sure you have a better view. In that way, you are using the innate skill of taking another’s perspective.

The cognitive ability emerges in human children at the age of around one-and-a-half to two years and is crucial to the eventual development of referential communication and the understanding that others have minds that function independently from ours. 

Only a few species, including some species of primates, canids, songbirds, and corvids, are known to exhibit this type of skill.

The research team from Lund University focused their attention on figuring out when this ability might have actually emerged in the course of evolution, testing the hypothesis that dinosaurs might have been able to do this.

To establish when visual perspective taking arose, the researchers compared the gaze following repertoire of American alligtaors (a species of Crocodilian) with that of some species of palaeognath birds, the most primitive birds in existence.

Crocodilians like the alligator are the closest living relatives of birds; while the palaeognath birds, which originated around 110 million years ago, are more similar to dinosaurs than any other bird taxa. They also share neuroanatomical similarities with their non-avian forebears.

The study showed that alligators do not exhibit visual perspective taking, while all three species of palaeognath birds tested (emu, greater rhea, and elegant-crested tinamous) do. This led the researchers to conclude that the ability for visual perspective taking likely appeared even earlier, in the dinosaur lineage, and well before mammals.

Interesting Engineering (IE) reached out to the study’s co-author Dr Mathias Osvath, Associate Professor in Cognitive Zoology at Lund University for more insight on the experiment.  

The following exchange has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

Interesting Engineering: Why did you choose to compare alligators and palaeognaths for this study? 

Dr Osvath: Because they, so-called, phylogenetically bracket the extinct lineage of the non-avian dinosaurs. Crocodilian are the closest living relative of birds (and hence dinosaurs), and their brains are very conserved and highly similar to the first dinosaur from around 220 million years ago when the croc and dino line split.

Palaeognath birds are the least derived of all extant birds, which means they have many “ancient” features shared by their very close relatives, the non-avian paravian dinosaurs. More specifically, their brains are the most similar of all birds to these dinosaurs – on many levels.

IE: If ancient palaeognath birds were endowed with visual perspective taking, how do we know that the dinosaurs also exhibited it?

The simple answer is that birds are dinosaurs. But more specifically this skill was present at least 110 million years ago (a long time before the large-scale extinction of dinosaurs around 66 mya). That is, deep into the dinosaur lineage. Moreover, as the neurocognition of palaeognaths (as well as their visual system, thermoregulation etc) is quite similar in the essential parts assumed to be relevant for this skill, to the non-avian paravian dinosaurs, the leanest hypothesis regarding them is that they also had the skill. That would push back the skill many tens of millions of years, but it is difficult to say when. But for certain, the early dinosaurs did not have this skill, as their brain were more alligator like. When the shift occurred is still unknown. 

IE: What are the implications of your research for the study of cognition? 

Apart from the pure scientific implications regarding the study of the natural history of cognition, I guess it can have conceptual implications for our perspectives and views on cognitive evolution. It has often been assumed, without much empirical backing, that the mammals “took over” after the extinction and evolved superior cognition. But it seems not to be the case, in at least this important skill. In one sense it is not surprising, as we now know more and more about dinosaurs/birds, and their brains and cognition, as well as their sensory systems. The mammals lived in the darkness of the night, while dinosaurs had exquisite vision early on. In fact, the great shift in mammal cognition was probably with the primates, when they re-evolved diurnal vision – which led to many cognitive adaptations. 

IE: Are there other abilities dinosaurs likely had that we believe only mammals are capable of?

Most likely, but I can’t tell you about that now. You’ll have to await future publications from this research.

Check out the study “Gaze following in Archosauria—Alligators and palaeognath birds suggest dinosaur origin of visual perspective taking,” published in Science Advances.


Taking someone else’s visual perspective marks an evolutionary shift in the formation of advanced social cognition. It enables using others’ attention to discover otherwise hidden aspects of the surroundings and is foundational for human communication and understanding of others. Visual perspective taking has also been found in some other primates, a few songbirds, and some canids. However, despite its essential role for social cognition, visual perspective taking has only been fragmentedly studied in animals, leaving its evolution and origins uncharted. To begin to narrow this knowledge gap, we investigated extant archosaurs by comparing the neurocognitively least derived extant birds—palaeognaths—with the closest living relatives of birds, the crocodylians. In a gaze following paradigm, we showed that palaeognaths engage in visual perspective taking and grasp the referentiality of gazes, while crocodylians do not. This suggests that visual perspective taking originated in early birds or nonavian dinosaurs—likely earlier than in mammals.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board