This just in: reptiles are animals too

People are finally figuring out that animals are smart, right? That just because they can’t do algebra they can still figure out some other things okay? It turns out that reptiles are animals too:

“Reptiles don’t really have great press,” said Gordon M. Burghardt, a comparative psychologist at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. “Certainly in the past, people didn’t really think too much of their intelligence. They were thought of as instinct machines.”…

For evidence of reptilian intelligence, one need look no further than the maze, a time-honored laboratory test. Anna Wilkinson, a comparative psychologist at the University of Lincoln in England, tested a female red-footed tortoise named Moses in the radial arm maze, which has eight spokes radiating out from a central platform. Moses’ task was to “solve” the maze as efficiently as possible: to snatch a piece of strawberry from the end of each arm without returning to one she had already visited…

By using experiments originally designed for mammals, researchers may have been setting reptiles up for failure. For instance, scientists commonly use “aversive stimuli,” such as loud sounds and bright lights, to shape rodent behavior. But reptiles respond to many of these stimuli by freezing, thereby not performing…Scientists may also have been asking reptiles to perform impossible tasks. Lizards do not use their legs to manipulate objects, Dr. Leal said, “so you cannot develop an experiment where you’re expecting them to unwrap a box, for example.”

Now that scientists have gotten better at designing experiments for reptiles, they are uncovering all kinds of surprising abilities. Some of the most intriguing work involves social learning. The conventional wisdom is that because reptiles are largely solitary, asocial creatures, they are incapable of learning through observation.

None of this should be particularly surprising. If reptiles weren’t able to spatially navigate through their environment, I’m not quite sure how they would survive. After all, even fruit flies have spatial memory! But I love lizards, and it’s always important to note that what is ‘intelligent’ for an animal to do is determined by its environment and particular characteristics, not by what some other animal is able to do.

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