December 7, 2023

5 Animals that create art

By Kristina C. From Care2

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.


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.


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.”


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.”


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.


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”?

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  1. evil

  2. I was just wondering how is that evil?

  3. they abuse them to make them make art

  4. Yeah. Like school? Maybe you should’ve stayed …

  5. Lawrence J. Vandenberg says

    Reading G.K. Chesterton’s THE EVERLASTING MAN–he concludes, rather triumphantly, that man-as-artist is distinguished from the other species as an observer of his fellows, whilst his fellows don’t share the same interest, or the capacity to record it. The male puffer fish has a distinct talent, to be sure–he’s attracting the femme puffer, though, not some helmeted deep sea diving art critic.

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