How Do Animals Learn To Swim Naturally When Humans Don't? (2023)

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How Do Animals Learn To Swim Naturally When Humans Don't? (1)

To humans, swimming is a mechanically-complex exercise that requires lots of getting used to. For other mammals, however, swimming comes naturally, and they can stay afloat from the moment they're born. So how do some animals have this instinct while humans don't? Animals naturally learn to swim because they've evolved certain features in and around aquatic environments.

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Table of Contents

  • Body Features
  • Natural Selection
  • FAQ

Body Features

Quadrupedal animals (animals who walk on four legs) enter the water in a position that allows them to swim more naturally. Humans and apes have an upright posture that makes the swimming motion much more awkward for their bodies to accommodate. A four-legged animal, on the other hand, is built to keep its mouth and nose above shallow water while swimming. Because most mammals walk on four legs, nearly all of them are able, in some capacity, to swim, though some are more used to water than others.

Take the doggy paddle, for instance. Though some dogs are better natural swimmers than others, a dog’s four legs are naturally level.When a dog swims, its limbs move similarly to how they do when walking, so the dog can adjust to the water more naturally than a human can.

Natural Selection

Over millions of years, animals that can swim have been naturally selected for survival in aquatic environments. Penguins, for example, have evolved into excellent swimmers in frigid waters to make up for their lack of flight.Different animals have evolved to swim for different reasons. While some mammals will motor into rivers to find plants to eat, others have developed the swimming instinct to escape predators that could otherwise outrun them.In fact, some mammals got so used to the water that they went from terrestrial to fully aquatic: fossils of prehistoric whales, for example, suggest they used to have four legs.

Unlike other mammals, humans never evolved swimming as a primary focus. Most primates evolved traits for a lifestyle high up in the trees, and have bodies more suited for climbing than swimming.On the topic of humans, in the span of millennia, they’ve actually “taught” some dogs how to swim better than others. Dogs initially bred for swimming, like retrievers and spaniels, are far more comfortable in the water today than small or stubby-limbed dogs who get overwhelmed by the water as soon as they’re dropped into it.Overall, while swimming comes naturally to animals today, it took millions of years of selective pressure for them to “learn” that swimming instinct, and sometimes humans taught it to them.

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Do animals naturally know how to swim?

Yes, nearly all animals naturally know how to swim. Mammals’ four-legged posture means it’s less complicated for them to propel their limbs through the water. Natural selection has also turned swimming into an advantage. Mammals in aquatic environments have evolved features over time, like streamlined bodies, webbed feet, and subcutaneous fat, to adapt to their habitat.Whether they’re swimming for food or escaping predators ready to make them into food, animals who can naturally swim have advantages for survival.

Why don't humans naturally know how to swim?

Humans evolved from apes, which had a climbing lifestyle that weakened the instinct to swim.Apes learned to wade upright through shallow river water in a non-swimming posture. Though humans now often live closer to large bodies of water than apes do, they still lack the instinct to swim. Someone who doesn’t know how to swim may stay upright in the water, which prevents them from moving forward.Also, in contrast to aquatic mammals, humans generally don't need to swim to survive.

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Do dogs instinctively know how to swim?

All dogs can instinctively paddle, but the body shapes of different breeds determine how successfully a dog can swim.Dogs with large heads and stubby limbs, like bulldogs, won't be able to stay afloat, but slender dogs, like retrievers, are able to swim. Before putting your pet dog in the water, make sure you know how to ease them in, depending on how used their breed is to swimming.

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How Do Animals Learn To Swim Naturally When Humans Don't? ›

For other mammals, however, swimming comes naturally, and they can stay afloat from the moment they're born. So how do some animals have this instinct while humans don't? Animals naturally learn to swim because they've evolved certain features in and around aquatic environments.

Do animals naturally know how do you swim? ›

Most mammals are able to swim instinctively without training; a notable exception being the great apes. Humans are clearly able to become proficient swimmers with training; other great apes, however, have not been documented as swimmers beyond anecdotal reports.

Why do dogs know how do you swim but not humans? ›

Swimming is a natural instinct for most dogs, as they have evolved from their ancestors who were aquatic mammals. On the other hand, humans have not evolved from aquatic creatures, and therefore, swimming is not a natural instinct for us. However, humans can learn how to swim through proper training and practice.

Do cats and dogs naturally know how do you swim? ›

Cats are notorious for wanting to avoid water and this has led many people to believe that they can't swim. However, this is a misconception. Just because our pet cats aren't quite as water-loving as their canine friends, it doesn't mean they can't swim.

Why do humans have to learn to swim? ›

For Safety Measures

Safety is the number one reason why people should learn to swim. You never know when a situation will happen that may cause you to be suddenly surrounded by water. Whether having fun in the backyard pool, going to the beach or fishing by a river, knowing water safety skills is a must for all ages.

Are humans built for swimming? ›

The human body is not really made for swimming. It is made for walking and running. Our upright gait on two legs sets us apart from other mammals—the ones our ancestors were chasing on foot. Our unusual anatomy actually makes swimming harder for us than it is for animals that go about on four legs.

Are humans naturally supposed to swim? ›

Humans, who are closely related to the apes, also do not swim instinctively. But unlike apes, humans are attracted to water and can learn to swim and to dive.

Do dogs see us as humans or dogs? ›

Humans and dogs smell different, look different, and behave differently—so when your dog is interacting with you, he's clearly getting the signal that you're a human, not a canine. But again, just because your dog recognizes that you're not a dog doesn't mean he doesn't identify with you or have a strong bond.

Do dogs see us as humans? ›

Some experts believe that dogs know we are a different species, so they wouldn't consider us eligible for their furry four-legged group. That said, dogs often treat us as like we're part of one big happy pack. They can be incredibly loyal and loving to their family members.

Are all dogs born knowing how do you swim? ›

Not Every Breed Is a Natural Swimmer

If you think about a breed's traditional purpose, it becomes obvious that some will be drawn to the water. Certain breeds were born to swim because they were developed for jobs in and around water.

Are cats and dogs self aware? ›

Although dogs can't identify themselves in the mirror, they still have some level of self-awareness and ace other self-recognition tests. They can recognize their own odor, and recall memories of specific events, reports.

How did humans learn how do you swim? ›

SWIMMING is by no means a natural human activity. The first swimmers, it is conjectured, were driven by hunger to search for sea food, and it must have taken millennia before they felt comfortable enough in water to enter it unaided.

Why do animals know how do you swim but humans don t? ›

Body Features. Quadrupedal animals (animals who walk on four legs) enter the water in a position that allows them to swim more naturally. Humans and apes have an upright posture that makes the swimming motion much more awkward for their bodies to accommodate.

What year did humans learn to swim? ›

By 8000 BCE, in the Cave of Swimmers in western Egypt, small red figures swim. Another 5000 years pass, and Egyptian hieroglyphic texts and imagery are replete with representations of swimming. Egyptian kings swam, as did poor Egyptians.

Why do so many adults not know how do you swim? ›

Typically, if an adult hasn't learned to swim as a child, they have some fear of swimming. As an adult, it can be more difficult to get over the fear of the water, which makes adults less likely to learn how to swim with every year they age. Kids have some degree of fear regarding the water and learning how to swim.

When did humans first learn to swim? ›

Archaeological and other evidence shows swimming to have been practiced as early as 2500 bce in Egypt and thereafter in Assyrian, Greek, and Roman civilizations.

Do all animals know how do you swim? ›

Most mammals are capable of swimming. But there are some animals that are incapable of swimming. Giraffe is one of the animals that cannot swim and it is because of their extreme anatomy – such as their long necks and legs, which would make swimming almost impossible.

Do dogs know how do you swim without being taught? ›

A dog's breed determines most of its innate ability to gravitate toward the water and swim naturally. Dogs that like to swim and those that don't have anatomical and instinctual differences. Most dog breeds with a propensity for the water have longer legs that enable them to dog paddle easier.

Do dogs learn how do you swim naturally? ›

Swimming ability really depends upon your dog's breed and structure. Some breeds are natural and enthusiastic swimmers. This includes the retrievers, the setters, most of the spaniels, the standard poodle and the large Newfoundland.


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