Gigantic Land Tortoises Aren't as Stupid as You May Think

Researchers were able to train the tortoises to perform three tasks of increasing difficulty.
Donna Fuscaldo

Huge land tortoises have gotten a bum rap over the years. They've been called "living rocks" and have a reputation for being sluggish, lacking both agility and the ability to think

But its finally time for these lumbering beasts to have a bit of vindication. New research out of Okinawa Institute suggests these turtles are not only smart enough to be trained but they have memories that put Nikola Tesla to shame. (Not really, but they do need some love.)


Tortoises performed tasks that increased in difficulty 

Dr. Tamar Gutnick, first author of the study and a postdoctoral scholar in the OIST Physics and Biology Unit and Dr. Michael Kuba, a staff scientist at OIST, trained two types of land tortoises Aldabra and Galapagos from Vienna Zoo and Zurich Zoo to perform three tasks that got increasingly more difficult. They used positive reinforcement training in which the tortoises were rewarded with their favorite food when they carried out the correct action. 

The scientists were able to train the tortoises to bite a colored ball on the end of a stick, to then move toward the stick and bite the ball on and finally learn a specific colored ball and choose the correct colored ball on a stick.

Tortoises remembered most tasks nine years later 

The researchers tested the tortoises three months later and they were able to perform the first two tasks immediately, They couldn't recall the correct colored balls for the third task.

Five out of six tortoises relearned what color ball to bite in a quicker time frame than the initial training. The researchers said that implies they have residual memory.  Three of the tortoises in the Vienna Zoo were visited nine years after they were first tested and recalled the first two tasks, which highlightings the tortoise's ability to remember long-term. 

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"When first discovered, giant land tortoises were viewed as stupid because explorers could simply collect and store them on ships as a supply of fresh meat," said Gutnick in a press release highlighting the work.  "We also observed firsthand that tortoises recognized their keepers, so we knew they were capable of learning. This research shows the rest of the world just how smart they are."

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