Words of Wisdom from the Experts Pt 3-

“I wish people knew how smart turtles are. They learn quickly where their food comes from; if from a human then they learn that specific person”

Is what Michelle Kelly (@MichelleKellyCW), public speaker about Reptiles and amphibians, wishes more people knew about turtles and tortoises.

Those of us who spend time with turtles and tortoise know how true this is but, in reality, most people hear “turtles are smart” and give you a funny look and make a slow joke.

Research on turtle and tortoise cognition has been growing in recent years and the studies have blown all our assumptions out of the water.  Turtles and tortoises are intelligent creatures with cognition that moves beyond the natural instincts they are born with.

The studies have shown that turtles and tortoise have strong object memory as well as problem-solving skills. In situations like maze tests, they are able to assess and identify a path to their goal. When landmarks are removed they are able to assess and adapt, finding their way to the goal regardless. Pretty awesome.

"What makes these results especially impressive is the fact that tortoises do not have a hippocampus – the part of the brain that humans and other mammals use for memory, spatial navigation, and learning in general. So what part of their brains is at work during such tests? Something called the medial cortex, according to Dr. Wilkinson.

This brain part is present in humans as well and is linked to decision making and other complex cognition. – Dr. Anna Wilkins on her study of red foot tortoise cognition via Animal Intelligence.

Some skills are species specific. For example, terrestrial turtles and tortoises have a stronger spatial sense than aquatic turtles. This serves their respective needs as the ability to assess how deep a hole is or identify a cliff they could fall from, is important on land and not in the water.

Multiple studies confirm that Turtles and tortoises are quick learners. Makes sense considering they must learn and navigate the world on their on from the moment they hatch. They show social learning abilities using skills like gaze following, something long thought to be exclusive to primates.

What does gaze following mean? in the wild, they can follow the gaze of other animals to identify potential risks or where the noms are!  Captive? Imagine you notice a weak spot in their enclosure. You’re looking at it thinking how to secure it. Well, make sure your tort isn’t watching cause you’re gaze directing them right to trouble. SNEAKY!

This is all to say our shell friends are smart creatures and our engagement with them is meaningful. Their ability to learn who we are, the food bringers, the human that doesn’t require caution any longer… They learn us, we learn them. People don’t realize this happens with our turtles and torts.

It also means, turtles and tortoises in the wild know what they’re doing. Helping them means getting them out of the road in the direction they’re going, not deciding where they end up. They know and they’re stubborn. haha

We still know very little but the research continues to grow, as does all the anecdotal research we shell keepers have to back it up. It’s fascinating stuff. 

Here are some great articles on Turtle and tortoise cognition if you want to learn more. They’re fascinating reads!

Cold Blooded does not mean stupid http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/19/science/coldblooded-does-not-mean-stupid.html

Cold-Blooded Cognition – Tortoises quick on the uptake https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21228440-500-cold-blooded-cognition-tortoises-quick-on-the-uptake/

Tortoises Show Off Smarts Mastering Touch-Screen Tech http://www.livescience.com/47155-tortoise-touchscreen-learning.html

Tortoises Can Master Mazes http://www.animalcognition.org/2015/04/03/tortoises-can-master-mazes/

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