Defining the smartness of a turtle is not that easy. There is no definite way to measure the IQ (aka smartness) of a turtle or tell how smart are turtles. However, after lots of research, one thing now we are sure of is, turtles are not STUPID!
After lots of studies, researchers have found that turtles show both instinctual and learned intelligence. The instinctual intelligence is what helps them to survive in the wild. It alerts them when a potential prey is nearby. It makes them hunt their own food. On the other hand, turtles learn from experience. This is their learned intelligence.
How Powerful is the Turtle Brain?
Turtle brains are in a lot way similar to the brain of a bird. However, turtles, reptiles in general, don’t have a large cerebral hemisphere like mammals or birds. Cerebral Hemisphere is the part of the brain that controls logic, learning as well as reasoning. As turtles don’t have a prominent cerebral hemisphere, they can’t show intelligence like a dog or cat.
However, in some species, the brain to body weight ratio is much comparable to a bird. Such turtle species show a higher IQ rate than other turtle species. Such a species is the Wood Turtle (Scientific name Glyptemis insculpta). Researchers all over the world are now using them as a test subject.
Researchers found that in a controlled environment, with proper food motivation, a wood turtle can solve a maze as quickly as a laboratory rat (which is amazing as the turtle is literally competing with a mammal). Wood turtles can also learn from their observation and preserve the experience in their memory.
Spatial Sense of Turtles
A series of experiments was conducted to test the spatial sense of various animals. The experiment was conducted by making a deep hole in the floor and covering it with a clear piece of glass sheet. The whole thing looked like a real cliff.
Now researchers put various animals near the edge of the cliff. Animals like lizards walked right across the cliff (taking no notice of the deep fall). So, they don’t have that much of a spatial sense. On the other hand, more intelligent species like rats didn’t pass through the cliff. They could guess the fall which indicates a good spatial sense.
Some aquatic turtle species such as painted turtle passed through the cliff right way. However, interestingly enough, terrestrial turtles like box turtles guessed the fall and didn’t pass through the cliff. This indicates that aquatic turtles do not have a developed spatial sense as terrestrial turtles. This is because aquatic turtles bask over water and they can quickly jump from a height to save themselves from any dangerous situation.
Natural Instinct of Turtles (aka Instinctual Smartness)
As I have said before, natural instinct helps a turtle to survive in the wild. This instinct will vary from species to species. Normally all aquatic turtle species migrate hundreds of miles throughout their life in search of new habitats, more food, and potential mate. But one thing that amazed me most is, most species can return back to the same spot where they hatched. They mark that spot as a safe zone where the survival rate is high.
Sea turtles by instinct, go for the sea at night. Because they know at night, potential predators won’t be able to hunt them. So, it will increase their survival rate.
Learned Smartness (Through Experience)
The natural instinct is something that a turtle born with. However, learned smartness is only achieved through experience. You can basically test and increase the smartness of a turtle by training him as well as through problem-solving.
Like dogs and cats, the training method for a turtle is similar. You need to motivate him with his favorite food (preferably a treat!). However, the IQ level of a turtle is not as high as dogs or cats. So, don’t expect him to play fetch with you!
With proper training, a turtle can recognize his owner. They actually mark the owner as a food source. So, when you enter the room or stand in front of the tank, you may often see your turtles are getting berserk seeing you! It is their way of asking for food. (Keep in mind that turtles are famous for begging food. If you have already fed them, don’t give them more if they start begging. Just ignore the begging. It is for their own good!)
I have also seen turtles that are trained to willingly participate in giving blood (for the checkup), clipping nails as well as getting into a crate for transportation.
Captive turtles that are fed at the same time every day soon start to learn when it is their feeding time and start to get ready for the food. Some intelligent turtles can also respond to their names (however it is not that common).
Like cats and dogs, turtles can learn through trial and error when they face any difficult situation. Turtles solve any problem relying on their memory, observation as well as behavioral instinct.
Let me share a recent study. Researchers took a red-foot tortoise and placed it in a maze to see if the tortoise can find its way out. Well, the result was amazing. The tortoise was able to find its way out by avoiding blocked routes that it had already taken. This shows how quickly they can learn from their experience and observation. Also, it shows when a turtle faces any difficulty, it tries to get out of that situation by adopting new and new solutions.
So, we can definitely say that turtles are not dumb. True they can’t play fetch with you like a dog, but they can at least associate you as the owner and remember who you are.