Turtle and Tortoise Intelligence

by Gabby Francis on 07 September 2010 · 11 comments

in Behavior

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…

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Maria 09 September 2010 (09) at 09:33

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.


Pamela 09 September 2010 (10) at 10:30

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!


Bradi 09 September 2010 (23) at 23:54

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!


Deborah 02 February 2015 (22) at 22:22

That’s hysterical. :)


Joe 01 January 2011 (22) at 22:06

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. ; )


Mark 07 July 2011 (09) at 09:09

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.


Matthew 08 August 2015 (12) at 12:51

My res is a frustratingly good escape artist. No matter what new setup I try, he manages to find a way out of his aquarium. I need a bigger tank, because I just can’t keep him in. Sometimes I find him perched, high centered, on the edge of the tank. Perfectly balanced and looking around. When he does something once, he can repeat it. I haven’t found an exception. It’s certainly some kind of intelligence.


Theresa Danielle Parker 10 October 2015 (04) at 04:13

2 months ago my best friend purchased a yellow bellied slider that I fell in love with from a pet store. Upon purchase I was told they believed it is a male but not sure as it was abandoned on their doorstep. The pet store estimates the age to be about 1 1/2 years and he (?) is approx 6″ long. When I brought him home he was quite unfriendly hissing and snapping anytime I touched him. He even nipped me pretty hard once. I started feeding him with the blunt end of a shish kabob stick but quickly switched to hand feeding. I hold him every day for only about 5mins while making eye contact and speaking softly to him. I started gently touching his front feet then tickling the underside of his chin while dodging his open mouth. Then gently rubbing his front toes and feet. I started waiting for his calm and touching my nose to his, he seems to really like this then I progressed to massaging his back feet and recently I have started massaging the sides and top of his neck, he REALLY seems to love this!!! He makes lots of eye contact from his tank and I find the more we connect the less he begs for food. He was a horrible begger when I first got him!!! I reward him with treats (strawberries or mealworms) about 75% of the time after handling him but I don’t want him to rely on them. Yesterday I introduced a chopped up carrot top to him and he sniffed it and flicked his nose twice with his left foot… He wouldn’t eat them.
Yes… I completely believe that he is very smart and can learn and even be trained. :-)


Dakota price 03 March 2016 (09) at 09:13

I had two Red-Eared African sliders, and I’m super surprised at their level of intelligence. The bigger of the two figured out how to escape his tank by pushing his rock landing over to a small slot on the side of the tank where the water filter hangs from the outside. He somehow managed to climb out that opening and the next morning I found him curled up under some pillows on my floor. After that I made sure to close the gap with duct tape and have an anchored platform for the turtles.


Anonymous 07 July 2016 (19) at 19:25

In all honesty, I question the intelligence of my box turtles frequently. In my 6 years of experience however, no matter what I’d like to think, I cannot defiantly say that they are intelligent in a dog or cat kind of way. I enjoy indulging myself in anecdotal stories of how smart turtles can be… but I might as well be living in a fantasy to believe in what they suggest. I’d like to end this by saying… All you die-hard turtle fans (including myself)… Get a life… XD (JK) you should love your little buddy from head to .. Claws. Intelligence shouldn’t matter , only their happiness which should be every turtlelers motive. Remember we as animals ourselves cannot unlock every path of knowledge on every animal. Its nature’s mysterious way.


Vin 08 August 2016 (07) at 07:07

I have an Indian star tortoise, I’ve had it for 12 years now. It’s very intelligent, capable of recognizing me from strangers. I can hand feed it food, it has never ever in its life been hostile to me, and the most interesting thing is, naturally she doesn’t like to cuddle or be in anyone’s arms for too long, but there were times, when I was upset at something and when I would hold her, she wouldn’t move till I was done with her. And I would be laying down with her on my chest around my neck. I call her my daughter. And I love her very very much. She is family.


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