Experts have discovered that mules are more intelligent than horses and donkeys.
Dr Britta Osthaus from Canterbury Christ Church University, Leanne Proops from the University of Sussex in Brighton and Dr Faith Burden from The Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth tested the learning skills of horses, donkeys and mules in a bid to assess their cognitive abilities.
They found that mules, which are hybrids of male donkeys and female horses, are smarter than either of their parent species.
Dr Osthaus, who works in Psychology at Canterbury Christ Church University, explained: “The aim of the study was to establish whether mules have different cognitive abilities from donkeys and horses. Throughout history, mules were bred because they combined the best of the physical abilities of donkeys and horses. However, up until now, little was known about the cognitive abilities of horses, donkeys and mules.”
The researchers tested six horses, six donkeys and six mules owned by The Donkey Sanctuary in Devon.
Each animal was shown sets of two food buckets, each marked with a different symbol. In order to gain access to the food, the animals had to pick the correct bucket. The mules learned to discriminate between more pairs of symbols than the horses or donkeys, and did so more consistently.
Dr Faith Burden, from The Donkey Sanctuary, says: “It has long been known that mules exhibit a trait known as hybrid vigour where the best genes of the parents ‘mix and match’ to produce hybrids with superior traits. This can lead to mules exhibiting the sure-footedness, stamina and stoical nature of a donkey combined with the vigour, strength and size of a horse; this is the first study to show that hybrid vigour is able to improve their thinking and learning abilities too. The mule truly is a fantastic example of hybrid vigour and, with sensitive handling and training, can be an excellent working animal.”
Dr Osthaus, a Lecturer in Psychology, said: “The mules’ performance was significantly better than that of either of the parent species and got faster over a period of time. Hopefully our findings will ensure that people change their attitudes towards mules, which frequently have a bad reputation because they often are mentally under-stimulated and therefore might turn against humans or become destructive. This study provides the first empirical evidence that the improved characteristics of mules may be extended from physical attributes to cognitive function.”
The Donkey Sanctuary is currently caring for over 120 mules on its 10 farms in the UK and Ireland.