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These Clever Animals Go High-Tech, Yet Everyone Thinks They're from the Stone Age

April 04, 2015

Story at-a-glance

  • An international team of researchers has taught red-footed tortoises to master certain tasks using touch-screen devices
  • The red-footed tortoise is naturally curious and motivated by food treats, which is why the researchers chose them for their study
  • All four tortoises learned to look at, approach, and peck at certain images on a touch-screen to receive a food treat. Two of the four were able to transfer their new-found knowledge to a real-life situation
  • The tortoises were quick studies on the touch-screens – as quick as pigeons and rats, and quicker than dogs
  • The study findings confirm that tortoises are intelligent creatures, and when kept in captivity, require cognitive enrichment

By Dr. Becker

This just in: tortoises are techies! Believe it or not, researchers have taught red-footed tortoises to master some basic maneuvers using touch-screen devices.

The research team, who published their study last year in the journal Behavioural Processes,1 was interested in learning about the navigational systems of the tortoises. Toward that end, they taught the animals a few touch-screen basics in exchange for strawberries. The tortoises not only learned the touch-screen tasks, but also applied their expertise to a real-life situation.

According to lead study author Anna Wilkinson of the University of Lincoln in England:

“Generally people see reptiles as inert, stupid and unresponsive. I would like people to see that there is something much more complex going on.”2

Red-Footed Tortoises Are Inquisitive and Love Treats

Red-footed tortoises are native to Central and South America and are naturally curious creatures who love food treats. That’s why the scientists chose them for their study.

The brains of red-footed tortoises don’t have a hippocampus, which is the area associated with learning, memory, and spatial navigation. The researchers speculated that to make up for the lack of a hippocampus, the tortoises might use an area of the brain called the medial cortex, which is associated with complex thought and decision-making in humans.

To evaluate how the tortoises learn, the researchers needed to understand how the animals use cues to navigate their environment.

Tortoises Are Fast Learners on Touch-Screens – Even Faster Than Dogs

In the first part of the experiment, the researchers gave the tortoises – named Esme, Quinn, Molly, and Emily -- strawberries as treats each time they looked at, approached, and pecked at the touch-screen. All four tortoises learned how to use the touch-screens quickly. In fact, they learned as quickly as pigeons and rats do, and faster than most dogs.

According to Wilkinson, the speed at which the tortoises learn is a result of their upbringing, or lack of one. Young tortoises aren’t cared for by their parents – they must learn to find their own food and shelter from the moment they hatch.

The tortoises learned to peck a red triangle at the center of the touch screen, and then when two blue circles flashed on either side of the triangle, they had to consistently peck at either the right or left circle to get a strawberry.

All four tortoises mastered the task, but two of the four ultimately stopped obliging the researchers, possibly because they were smaller in size and had trouble reaching the touch-screen. However, the bigger tortoises went on to apply their new skill in real life.

The Verdict: Tortoises Are Intelligent Creatures

In part two of the experiment, the researchers placed the two larger tortoises in an enclosed area with two empty blue food bowls that resembled the blue circles on the touch-screen. Both tortoises headed for the bowl on the same side as the circles they had pecked on the screen. Of course, it’s possible they simply preferred that side and weren’t actually transferring their touch-screen learning to the bowls.

The researchers then trained the tortoises to go to the other bowl to measure how flexible they were. However, three months later when they were presented with the touch-screens again, the tortoises immediately began pecking on the same side as before (the one that had earned them strawberries). This is known as “side bias,” and according to the researchers, side biases can be hard to break.

These study results will help scientists compare the perceptual and cognitive skills of tortoises to other animals that can perform similar tasks. The results also provide further proof that tortoises are intelligent.

“If you are taking on a reptile,” says Wilkinson, “you do need to consider their cognitive enrichment.”

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Sources and References

  • 1 Behavioural Processes, Vol. 106, July 2014, pp 187-192
  • 2 LiveScience August 1, 2014
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