5 Animals That Create Art

Animals can paint and make sculptures. But is it art?

In a study published in 2006, Gisela Kaplan and Lesley J. Rogers examined this question very carefully. The researchers considered how animals perceive colors — elephants only see two pigments, while humans can see three — and attempted to understand if they feel any pleasure from looking at their creations.

That is, Kaplan and Rogers sought to consider animals’ creations with paint and other materials from their perspective. To humans, the paintings of elephants may resemble abstract art, but to assume the elephant thinks the same overlooks their anatomy and physiology. Additionally, we do not know if animals produce art in their natural environments.

Nonetheless, studying animal artwork certainly shows that many are capable of more complex behaviors than had previously been thought. Kaplan and Rogers also note that a better understanding of animals’ aesthetic sense and abilities can have implications for animal welfare:

… 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.

Here are five animals that make what we humans consider art.

1. Gorillas

There have been numerous reports of captive primates painting. But not only have the gorillas Koko and Michael painted, they have also been able to explain what they have painted as they learned to sign.

Koko painted what looked like a bird with wings, albeit too many, and signed that she had painted a bird. A chimpanzee named Moja also communicated that she had painted a bird.

Video uploaded by J. Patrick Malone/YouTube

2. Seals

Seals in captivity have been taught to paint with color. But as Kaplan and Rogers point out, the animals are colorblind. The cells of seal retinas contain only green cones, so they can only see green. It is not clear why or how the seals choose different colors of paint.

Other marine mammals, like whales and dolphins — which have also been known to paint in captivity — have the same monochromatic vision. Kaplan and Rogers believe the adaptation is ”likely to have evolved for life in the sea.”

Video uploaded by NewEnglandAquarium/YouTube

3. Cows

Not only are there bovine artists, NPR reports, but they use quite an unusual medium: 50-pound cubes of salt.

Ranchers give the salt cubes to cows as nutritional supplements. A few years ago, Whit Deschner of Baker, Oregon, observed that the blocks, once licked over, had an array of grooves and curves that left them resembling “vertebrae from prehistoric creatures.” Others appeared to be “windswept sandstone formations you might see in canyon country.” Accordingly, Deschner dreamed up a crazy idea: the “Great Salt Lick Contest.”

While most were initially dubious about the idea, the contest has become a community effort to raise funds for research on Parkinson’s disease, a condition which Deschner himself has. The salt lick creations are auctioned off, with most selling for $200 or $300. The highest price tag ever was $1,000. Overall, more than $30,000 has been raised from “Deschner’s folly.”

Video uploaded by holsteincowboy/YouTube

4. Elephants

It is not entirely surprising that elephants can paint with a brush or their trunk. After all, they use a range of tools in captivity. Just like humans, different elephants have unique painting styles, which Kaplan and Rogers attribute to individual trunk movements.

While elephants paint in a number of colors, they can only see two pigments — bluish-violet colors and yellowish-red ones — a possible adaption for improved night vision.

Video uploaded by Oregon Zoo/YouTube

5. Bowerbirds

Bowerbirds select objects for their shape and color and then arrange them in their bowers in what — to humans — seems a deliberately artistic ordering. Satin bowerbirds even paint their bowers with their saliva and plant extracts.

The Bowerbird is the only creature noted here that has been observed creating art in the wild and not in captivity. However, the question remains: Are animals in the wild actually being artistic? Or do animals only create art in zoos and water parks because they have nothing better to do?

What do you think? Are the paintings of elephants and seals, the drawings of chimpanzees and gorillas, the salt sculptures of cows and the trinket-filled bowers of bowerbirds “art”?

Video uploaded by DaelwynRaeala/YouTube

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Photo Credit: Yu-Chan Chen/Flickr

123 comments

Angie B.
Angie B.about a month ago

I just copy this in here, where it said at some point:

"We strongly believe that we are a very special, extremely awesome species, on the very highest top of evolution and above everything that ever had existed in the Universe (we modestly call ourselves “the masterpiece of God’s creation” and similar), unable to realize that the most “special” (and the most relevant characteristic) about us is our inability to adapt to the natural environment this Earth provides. We instead “adapt” it to our strange and harmful needs, which sadly always means destruction. Massive destruction, in fact.

We are the only existing creature on this planet with this particular disability.

In this scenario the value of all our “achievements” and purportedly “unique to mankind-abilities”, such as the ability to create art, science, feel empathy and all those “marvellous” qualities that we believe make us superior to any other creature in this world, is rather questionable and it may well be doubted what they actually are good for if the overall picture of our existence is the one it is. Yet we claim that these qualities somehow compensate for all the murder and destruction we perpetrate, considering them as such exceptional and extraordinary and finding ourselve

Matthew W.
Matthew W.2 years ago

the fact is animals have never in history created any artwork anywhere in the world and never will in a natural environment, but human children do it out of instinct naturally without any incentive or being taught. Reason being, man was created, Neanderthal dna does not exist in people of african decent because the were to far apart to breed, man did not evolve, also just recently discovered is part of mans dna has genes plucked out and encrypted switches in the dna encryption are not found in animal dna. I hate to break the news to ya but man was simply made by God and news scientific discoveries in genetics only proves that fact. If people of african decent do not have Neanderthal dna in them then it is impossible for modern man to have evolved from them. People of european decent have traces of their dna because some of them breed with them. Sorry to have to break the news to ya but man did not evolve modern man was made and God is the missing link

CaddyOne LoveChrist

i just wasted 2 min watching cows lick salt blocks on a blog that claims 5 animals have started creating art, and this was one of the examples??? FAIL!

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson3 years ago

I am not sure what makes humans think we are so darn unique.. we just aren't

Alicia Guevara
Alicia Guevara3 years ago

Not art for me; just funny. :)

Carrie Anne Brown

thanks for sharing

Melania Padilla
Melania Padilla3 years ago

Cool! Thanks

Andrew C.
Andrew C.3 years ago

David V. - I was thinking the same thing.

Tia Simon
Tia Simon3 years ago

What kind of person needs to capture or breed, and forever cage a satient being in order to experiment on him/her to see if they enjoy making art? Would we imprison our children to see if they "like" their art work? Some PhD's got research funding for this. In college, they teach kids to do the same - more animal experimentation. We are so stupid. Look at the bigger picture here. If we want to know this simply go hiking and for once, be quiet.

Sheri J.
Sheri J.3 years ago

a good read.