By Stacey Venzel
Defining the intelligence of a turtle can be subjective as it is difficult to quantify their IQ. One thing is for certain, though: turtles are not stupid.
Turtles exhibit signs of both innate and learned intelligence. Natural instincts help them survive from the get-go while trained lessons and problem-solving skills show that turtles can learn from experience.
Turtles are born with survival instincts that help both individuals and the species. Aquatic turtles migrate thousands of miles in a lifetime, but many species are able to navigate back to the same beach from which they hatched, presumably because they survived hatching so the nesting site must be suitable for survival. Sea turtle hatchlings innately head to the sea at night, presumably using the darkness as a cloak from predators. Even turtles crossing the road know where they are headed.
Reasons for teaching a turtle can be as fun as getting a pet to entertain with tricks or as methodical as enlisting the creature’s help in medical procedures. Especially when food is involved, turtles can recognize owners and situations that benefit them, such as the sound of an arriving car suggesting feeding time in the pond. For chelonians that visit the vet often, they can be trained to voluntarily participate in blood draws, nail clippings and crating up for transportation.
When confronted with a difficult task, turtles can also learn by trial and error, behavioral flexibility, social observation or relying on their own memory. A red-footed tortoise was able to successfully navigate a maze by avoiding dead end turns she had already taken, showcasing a turtle’s ability to remember things on its own. Additionally, this tortoise proved how adaptable turtles are when her previous path was blocked and she had to come up with a different way to complete the maze. Red-footed tortoises have also been observed learning by example; following in the footsteps of a tortoise they watched solving the task of obtaining a precariously placed piece of food.
Emily Anthes, “Coldblooded Does Not Mean Stupid,” The New York Times, November 18, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/19/science/coldblooded-does-not-mean-stupid.html?_r=0.
Stephen Divers, Doug Mader, Current Therapy in Reptile Medicine & Surgery, (St. Louis, Elsevier Saunders, 2014), 129.
Karen Eckert, David Gulko, Sea Turtles: An Ecological Guide (Honolulu, Mutual Publishing, 2004), 71, 74.
Whit Gibbons, Judy Greene, Turtle: The Animal Answer Guide (Baltimore, The John Hopkins University Press, 2009), 35-36, 86.