How Smart Are Turtles? (This May Come Unexpected to You)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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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.

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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).

Solving Problems:

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.

What Is The IQ Of A Turtle?

IQ, or Intelligence Quotient, is a test to assess the intelligence of humans. Of course, the traditional IQ questionnaire assessment does not work with animals.

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However, scientists have arranged a special IQ test to measure the intelligence of animals like chimpanzees. The evaluation technique includes multiple cognitive tasks of math and puzzle-solving skills.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to design a standardized IQ test for all animals due to their differences in adapting to any skill. Though turtles show signs of intelligence and memory skills, no IQ test has been planned for them yet.

Some sources claim that turtles have an IQ level of 3 – 10. But there are no scientific backings to these statements.

How Smart Are Sea Turtles?

Different research on aquatic and semi aquatic turtles has proved their excellent problem-solving skills, aka smartness. But what about sea turtles?

Such memory and cognitive tasks have not been experimented on sea turtles. But we can still assume their smartness by observing the lifestyle of this species.

For starters, sea turtles have a strong sense of communication from day zero. Right after the babies come out of the eggs, they wait for all their siblings to hatch. Then they collectively push the packed nest soil upward and get out.

Generally, the hatchlings come out at night. They follow the moonlight and wave to reach the ocean. It proves that these turtles have an excellent directional sense. Again, these turtles participate in migration and travel thousands of miles without mistaking the direction.

In fact, sea turtles return to their birthplace during their breeding and nesting season. You will notice the largest community nesting only in sea turtles.

Well, all these habits of sea turtles are signs that this species is intelligent, smart, and communicative.

Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta)
Wood Turtle

Frequently Asked Questions

Do Turtles Have Brains?

Turtles do have brains. In fact, turtles and tortoises have a very similar nervous system to humans, with a brain split into the Cerebellum, Midbrain, and Forebrain. Recent research has also found that turtles have developed complex brains that allow them to adapt, with a range of shapes and sizes.

Are Turtles Sentient?

There is a growing body of research suggesting that turtles are sentient beings. Sentience is defined as the ability to perceive or feel things, and research has shown that turtles are capable of feeling pain, stress, and even exhibit play behavior.

Do Turtles Have Good Memory?

Turtles have a good memory. They have the ability to remember things that they were taught years ago, and they can recognize and remember dangerous areas, animals, and objects that pose a threat to their survival.

However, the complexity of the things that turtles can remember is limited, and their memory is selectively focused on survival-related tasks, such as finding food, basking, and reproducing.

What Is The Size Of Turtle’s Brain?

Turtles have relatively small brains compared to their body size.  Despite their large carapaces, sea turtles have small brain sizes. In general, as the size of an animal increases, so does the size of the brain. However, this progression is allometric rather than linear.

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How Smart Are Turtles Compared To Humans?

It is difficult to compare the intelligence of turtles and humans directly, as they have very different cognitive abilities and ways of processing information.

While turtles have been shown to exhibit problem-solving skills and the ability to learn tricks, their cognitive abilities are generally focused on survival and navigating their environment.

Humans, on the other hand, have much more complex brains and are capable of advanced reasoning, language, and abstract thought.

Can Turtles Recognize You?

Turtles are capable of recognizing their owners. Although turtles do not see their owners in the same way that dogs or cats do, they are able to recognize them based on their appearance, scent, and the sound of their voice.

Turtles understand that their owners play an important role in their lives by providing them with food, water, and other basic needs.

Some species of turtles, such as the box turtle, are more intelligent and can even show excitement or move towards food when they recognize their owners.

What Is The Most Intelligent Turtle?

According to research, the North American Wood Turtle is considered the most intelligent turtle species.  They have been known to complete complex mazes as quickly as lab rats and can recall the maze’s route for a long time.

However, it is important to note that intelligence can vary greatly between individual turtles, and different species may excel in different areas of cognitive ability.

Are Turtles Smarter Than Fish?

Turtles and fish have different cognitive abilities, and it is difficult to compare their intelligence directly.

However, research has shown that some species of fish, such as the cichlid fish, have impressive cognitive abilities, including problem-solving, social learning, and even tool use.

On the other hand, turtles have been shown to have good memory, problem-solving skills, and the ability to recognize their owners, as previously mentioned.

Are Turtles Smarter Than Cats?

Turtles and cats have very different cognitive abilities, and it is difficult to compare their intelligence directly.

Cats are known for their problem-solving skills, social intelligence, and ability to learn tricks, while turtles are known for their good memory, problem-solving skills, and the ability to recognize their owners.

However, cats have a more complex brain and are capable of advanced reasoning, language, and abstract thought, while turtles have a relatively small brain size compared to their body size.

So, generally turtles are not smarter than cats.

Are Turtles Smarter Than Dogs?

Dogs possess high social intelligence, problem-solving skills, and the ability to learn complex commands, whereas turtles are recognized for their good memory, problem-solving skills, and ability to recognize their owners.

However, dogs have a more complex brain structure than turtles and are capable of advanced reasoning, language, and abstract thought.

Additionally, dogs have the ability to perform a wide range of tasks for humans, including guiding the visually impaired, detecting seizures, and aiding in search and rescue operations.

So, generally turtles are not smarter than dogs.

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About Author

Muntaseer Rahman started keeping pet turtles back in 2013. He also owns the largest Turtle & Tortoise Facebook community in Bangladesh. These days he is mostly active on Facebook.


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