Cold-blooded cognition: Tortoises quick on the uptake

I am SO EXCITED about this new research. So I posted a while back about the ig nobel prize and the tortoises that don’t yawn together. Well, it may have won a prize but the article on the winners left out a huge block of research that went along with that “contagious yawning hypothesis”. Thats right, huge strides were made in the understanding of cognition in tortoises and turtles and all I read about was tortoises and yawning! 

Its really not surprising that research indicates higher levels of intelligence and social behavior than academics ever thought before. All of us tort owners can vouch for the fact that our shelled friends have more than a clue about their surroundings. That ‘side eye’ they give us when we bug them is no joke. Here, however, we have academic research proving that these reptiles (previously said to have little more than instinctual based behavior) express complex cognitive skills “surprisingly advanced levels of social learning”. How awesome is that? 

The article discusses the fact that research on animal cognition has really stayed away from reptiles, more specifically turtles and torts, and stuck more with mammals and birds. There has been work done, but its been few and far between. Large lizards have been researched quite a bit, and have shown attachment as well as social behavior within species and with humans and other animals. About a year ago I posted an article on reptile play behavior that was based on interactions with a large sea turtle. It showed that, despite previous assumptions, reptiles enjoy activities purely for the interaction and “play” and not based on survival instincts alone as previously thought. Looks like we can now move forward from there! 

The highlights of the article include: 

  • The [researchers] set up a tortoise-sized test maze similar to the eight-armed radial structure used for rats and mice, then put Moses through his paces. As with the rodents he was placed in the centre of the maze and given eight chances to retrieve food from the arms – each of which had a morsel at its end. Moses quickly learned to find his way around so that he didn’t revisit arms where he had already eaten the food. Like the rodents, he seemed to create a “cognitive map” from the objects he could see in the world beyond the maze. However, when Wilkinson and Hall obscured these landmarks, Moses took up a different strategy – he systematically visited the arm next to the one he had just left, allowing him to retrieve all eight food scraps (Journal of Comparative Psychology, vol 121, p 412). This flexibility of behaviour has never been seen in mammals, which seek new landmarks when old ones are removed. Clever Moses.
  • One skill Wilkinson and Huber were keen to explore was gaze-following. The ability to look where another individual is looking is important because it can alert you to potential predators, or food. It is also a complex behaviour, which requires understanding that another animal’s gaze can convey useful information, working out where it is looking and turning to focus on the same spot. Gaze-following has long been thought of as a talent exclusive to primates, but recently it has been found in goats and a few birds. It turns out that red-footed tortoises can do it too.
  • The researchers found tortoises can learn to find hidden food by watching another tortoise walk around a wall to collect a treat (Biology Letters, vol 6, p 61). This indicates that tortoises are capable of social learning, a trait thought to have evolved as a special cognitive adaptation in social animals. The discovery raises the possibility that social learning may simply be an extension of general learning capabilities rather than a specialist skill.

So read the article in the new scientist here. I promise you won’t be disappointed. For those of you extra nerdy like me, you can read one of the full journal articles by the research team here.