Reptile enthusiasts have long known that tortoises are highly intelligent, and quickly modify their behaviors to meet new challenges. Recent work at the University of Vienna (Biology Letters, March, 2010) has broken new ground in this area. Red-Footed Tortoises (Geochelone carbonaria) have provided us with the first example of “social learning by imitation” in a reptile.
Learning by Doing
In the experiment, a hungry Red-Footed Tortoise was presented with a dilemma – in order to reach its food bowl, the tortoise needed to negotiate a screen barrier. After a great many unsuccessful attempts to reach the food, the tortoise learned to walk out of the maze and go around the barrier to retrieve its reward.
Learning by Observation Alone
Four other tortoises were placed in the same situation. As with the first tortoise, they all tried, many times, to go through the barrier, and were unable to reach the food. The four were then positioned so that they could observe the original tortoise successfully evade the barrier and obtain meal.
When tested again, 2 of the new tortoises immediately followed the correct path to the food, and the other 2 did so in short order. On several occasions they altered the successful pattern slightly, i.e. turning right as opposed to left, but maintained the correct “concept” and reached their reward none-the-less.
Prior to this experiment, only social animals (primates, certain birds and fishes) were believed capable of learning by imitating others of their kind. Tortoises are the first solitary animals, and the first reptiles, to exhibit this ability.
More to This Than We Expect?
I wonder if observation may turn out to be a survival strategy of great importance to some reptiles…after all, the “student tortoises” learned the behavior on 1 try, as opposed to the original tortoise, which plugged away at the problem 150 times before figuring out the solution!
Video of the experiment described above is posted here.
Please see my article on Wood Turtle Intelligence for a look at another remarkably bright Chelonian.
Many of the lizards I’ve worked with have shown remarkable learning abilities…please see Learning in Rhino Iguanas and other Lizards.
Bottom Red-footed Tortoise image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by E. Schüler
Red-footed Tortoise image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Postdlf