Turtle and Tortoise Intelligence

Perhaps it’s because I grew up watching and re-watching ET — who resembled an overgrown deshelled turtle — that I feel such an affinity for these little dudes. For cold-blooded reptiles, turtles and tortoises are adorable. To see one helping up a buddy, as in the following video, well that just amps up the cute even more!

Hey, buddy, I’ve been there…

The most recent addition to my own house is a little green guy named Nicholi (my impetus for this post). As he squirmed and hissed around in his owner’s hand when I met him, it got me thinking:

  • One, I have no idea how you’re supposed to “meet” a turtle. Clearly whatever the proper greeting is, this wasn’t it.
  • Two, how intelligent are turtles? My roommate explained that Nicholi (who is now one) should live for another 79 years. That’s a long time to spend in a plastic tub with occasional jaunts out to the backyard. It kind of made me sad.

I decided to do a little digging and found this New York Times “Ask Science” piece about turtle intelligence. Basically, there isn’t definitive scientific research to suggest they’re smart, and one doctor actually calls them dumb. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to show that turtles and tortoises are as smart as those wise old faces would have you believe! Of course, anecdotal evidence isn’t exactly science.

There are several cute stories in the NYT article. There’s also one not-so-cute story, but it relates to my situation. A 70-pound soft shelled turtle named Pigface had lived at the National Zoo for more than 40 years. Then, one day he began mutilating himself. Researchers wondered if the poor guy was bored out of his mind and began adding toys to his tank. Slowly he learned to play with the toys; the more puppy-like he became in learning to play, the less he mutilated himself. No word, however, on whether he might be intelligent enough to be shamed by the indignity of such a cruel name as Pigface…


  1. Maria said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 9:33 am

    I have a red-eared slider (an aquatic turtle that lives in an aquarium) and I was surprised by how intelligent he seems. He always seems to be observing and taking it all in… And he definitely knows when feeding time is — anytime a person comes up to the tank, he dives in the water and swims to his feeding spot. Maybe this doesn’t demonstrate extreme intelligence, but he can certainly recognize that those big shadows hovering over him are not to be feared! This is my first pet turtle and I have to say he is a wonderful pet, and much more interactive and entertaining than I would have ever imagined.

  2. Pamela said,

    September 7, 2010 @ 10:30 am

    I admit I don’t spend enough time around turtles to have an idea of their intelligence. But I suspect they can be trained and that training might provide some stimulation for them.

    Clicker training chickens is an exercise some beginning dog trainers use. See here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPrJLkzymhM. If chickens can learn, why not turtles.

    BTW, enjoying the new blog. I read Get Rich Slowly for work but Animal Intelligence for fun!

  3. Bradi said,

    September 25, 2010 @ 11:54 pm

    I have two red-eared sliders, and as I was taking them for a run down my driveway one day, I took my eye off Raphael, my boy, for one second, and he had escaped through my gate and was on the road! He couldn’t fit under the gate, so I was thinking to myself,, how the hell did he get out? So I put him back where he was in front of the gate and watched him. To my amazement, he tipped himself sideways and climbed through the two vertical metal poles in order to fit through!! I believe he is MUCH more intelligent than I initially thought!

  4. Joe said,

    January 17, 2011 @ 10:06 pm

    I’ve had my turtles since they were babies and I would say they are pretty intelligent. My first clue came as I was watching how one of my babies would push all the rocks and toys in the fish bowl to one side to make his escape…they definitely recognize my face and will splash around to get my attention if i forget about them…I have an aquarium indoors but feed them in an outside pool.. they love it if I toss them up in the air or spin them through the water as they always race back for more…If I let them walk around the backyard they always come back to the glass door to be let back into their home. ; )

  5. Mark said,

    July 15, 2011 @ 9:09 am

    I have an Eastern Painted turtle, a lot like a slider, who has learned to eat from my hand when I dangle food in front of him. That’s about it, though. It’s learned behavior, but it’s on the lower end in the realm of habituation/classical conditioning (when I pick up his food can he gets really really excited, I’m sure if he were Pavlov’s dog he salivate). I have to say he’s pretty dumb otherwise, which is okay because he does some funny stuff. It’s weird, he loves me when he’s in his tank, but runs like a fugitive when he’s out.

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