Tortoises may be notoriously tardy creatures, but that’s just a shell. It turns out they can move their heads remarkably fast. Researchers are using this capacity to teach them to use touchscreens, and then apply what they have learned to the real world. It turns out that tortoises are not slow in the thinking department.
Red footed tortoises were given strawberry treats when they pecked or head-butted blue circles on touchscreen computers. To win the treats they needed to chose the circle on a particular side.
Besides the obvious point that tortoises head-butting touchscreens just makes the world a better place, the work is part of an effort to learn how reptiles navigate. The question is intriguing because mammals and birds rely on the hippocampus, which reptiles lack, to find their way around.
Previous research suggests that tortoises use different mechanisms to mammals and birds to navigate, but research into how they do this is in its infancy. A team led by Dr Anna Wilkinson of the University of Lincoln explored the theory that in reptiles the medial cortex plays the role of the hippocampus, but learns differently. Their findings were published in Behavioral Processes.
“Tortoises are perfect to study as they are considered largely unchanged from when they roamed the world millions of years ago. And this research is important so we can better understand the evolution of the brain and the evolution of cognition,” Wilkinson says.
“The big problem is how to ask all animals a question that they are equally capable of answering. The touchscreen is a brilliant solution as all animals can interact with it, whether it is with a paw, nose or beak. This allows us to compare the different cognitive capabilities.”
Of four turtles enrolled two, named Esme and Quinn, learned well enough to see how they transferred their two dimensional knowledge to the 3D world. They were given a choice of two blue food bowls. Both stuck to the bowl on the same side as the circles they'd been taught to favor.
Wilkinson says, “Their task was to simply remember where they had been rewarded, learning a simple response pattern on the touchscreen. They then transferred what they had learned from the touchscreen into a real-world situation. This tells us that when navigating in real space they do not rely on simple motor feedback but learn about the position of stimuli within an environment.”
Interestingly however, when rewarded to go to the opposite bowl in reality the tortoises got the message, but could not transfer it back to the touchscreen. The research has yet to settle whether tortoises' navigation skills could allow them to find short cuts that would allow them to beat hares, or hold a lead over athletes.