Tortoises Teaching Us Through Touch-Screen Technology!

The old assumption that animals acted exclusively by instinct, while man had a monopoly of reason, is, we think, maintained by few people nowadays who have any knowledge at all about animals.  We can only wonder that so absurd a theory could have been held for so long a time as it was, when on all sides the evidence if animals’ power of reasoning is crushing.  ~Ernest Bell 

"Don't judge me by my appearance. I am much smarter than you realize." ~ The nearly 100 year young Aldabra Tortoise, Magma
“Don’t judge me by my appearance. I am much smarter than you realize.” ~ The 100 year young Aldabra Tortoise, Magma

I am beyond excited to share this post with you!  Huge breakthroughs have been happening for tortoises and turtles behind the scenes for decades, but most of the world has no idea what we have accomplished and learned from these complicated reptiles.  Thankfully, a new study has proven what reptile trainers, zoo, aquarium and nature center educators, and reptile enthusiasts all over the world already knew; turtles and tortoises are not simple, mindless creatures.

Thanks to scientists who are thinking outside the box, and who are willing to share their results, the world will finally know that turtles and tortoises are capable of decision making and complex cognitive behavior.  Yes, you read that correctly; tortoises and turtles make deliberate decisions, and use complex thinking to solve problems, and to gain rewards for themselves.

The title of this post is actually true! Tortoises have officially entered the world of touch-screen technology!  Scientists recently discovered that tortoises are capable of learning how to use an electronic device in exchange for strawberries!  The tortoises not only mastered the task in exchange for strawberries, but the animals also transferred their knowledge to a real-life setting.

 


The Tortoise Test Subjects

The tortoises they chose as test subjects for this experiment were Red-footed tortoises. Like most turtles and tortoises, they are very inquisitive and very eager to eat tasty treats.  “This makes them very good test subjects”, Anna Wilkinson, of the University of Lincoln, England explained.

These tortoises lack a hippocampus.  This is an area of the brain associated with learning, memory, and spatial navigation.   The researchers believe that red-footed tortoises may rely on an area in their brain called the medial cortex.  This is the same area associated with complex cognitive behavior and decision making in humans.

Red-footed tortoises are inquisitive and eager to eat treats, making them good test subjects. ~Wilkinson

What better way to a tortoises heart than through a strawberry??
What better way to a tortoise’s heart than through a strawberry??

“Tortoises are perfect to study as they are considered largely unchanged from when they roamed the world millions of years ago. And this research is important so we can better understand the evolution of the brain and the evolution of cognition.”

 


Learning How Tortoises Learn

First the researchers needed to understand how tortoises learn, so they tested how the reptiles relied on cues to navigate the area.  To do this, they gave the tortoises treats when the reptiles looked at, approached, and then pecked on the screen.   All four red-footed tortoises learned how to use touch screens fairly quickly.

“It’s comparable to the speed with which the pigeons and rats do it. I’ve trained dogs to use a touch screen and I’d say the tortoises are faster.” ~ Wilkinson

Wilkinson explains that turtles’ and tortoises’ speedy learning is due to the fact that “tortoise hatchlings don’t receive parental care, so they have to learn how to make decisions about food and shelter for themselves from the moment they hatch.”

 


The Main Experiment

The tortoises attempted to bite a red triangle in the center of the touch screen.  When two blue circles flashed, the tortoises had to consistently peck at either the circle on the right, or the one on the left to get a tasty strawberry.

The results:  All four of the tortoises mastered the tortoise touch-screen task! However two of the tortoises eventually stopped cooperating; Wilkinson explains that it’s possibly because these two were too small to reach the screen.  Two of the tortoises, Esme and Quinn, continued to try and applied  their knowledge to a real-life situation.

You can watch part of the experiment below.

Tortoise With A Touchscreen Tests Testudine Perception Video

 


Learning Applied to Real Life

In the next part of the experiment, the remaining two tortoises applied their knowledge to a real-life situation.  The researchers placed the tortoises in an arena with two blue, empty food bowls that were similar to the blue circles on the touch screen.  The tortoises walked over to the bowl on the same side as the red circles that they were trained to bite at on the screen.

The researchers then trained the tortoises to go to the opposite blue bowl in the arena to see how flexible they were with learning.  When they were reintroduced to the touch screens three months later, the tortoises immediately began biting at the same side of the screen as before.

 “The big problem is how to ask all animals a question that they are equally capable of answering. The touchscreen is a brilliant solution as all animals can interact with it, whether it is with a paw, nose or beak. This allows us to compare the different cognitive capabilities.”

 


What Does This All Mean?

The experiment reinforces other findings that tortoises are intelligent creatures. ~Professor Vonk, psychology department, Oakland University, Michigan

These new findings will help researchers compare the perceptual and cognitive abilities of tortoises to other animals that can perform the same tasks.

Red-footed tortoises are native to Central and South America. When placed in captivity, tortoises and turtles of all species need mental enrichment! Science is continually proving this!
Red-footed tortoises are native to Central and South America. When placed in captivity, tortoises and turtles of all species need mental enrichment! Science is continually proving this!

“Their task was to simply remember where they had been rewarded, learning a simple response pattern on the touchscreen. They then transferred what they had learned from the touchscreen into a real-world situation. This tells us that when navigating in real space they do not rely on simple motor feedback but learn about the position of stimuli within an environment.” -Dr Wilkinson


“If you are taking on a reptile, you must consider their need for cognitive enrichment.” ~ Wilkinson

 

Red-footed tortoises are native to Central and South America. Here is one of our educational reptile representatives, the Red-footed tortoise
Here is one of our educational reptile representatives, the Red-footed tortoise. Educational outreach can be great mental and physical enrichment for reptiles, but we do need to consider that they can get stressed, too. Science is now proving that turtles and tortoises do have complicated cognitive abilities, so we must honor that with how we interact with them and care for them in captivity.

 

“Generally people see reptiles as inert, stupid and unresponsive.  I would like people to see that there is something much more complex going on.” ~ Anna Wilkinson, senior lecturer of animal cognition at the University of Lincoln, England


This study was published in the July issue of the journal Behavioral Processes.

Story Source:  Materials provided by University of Lincoln


Journal Reference:

Julia Mueller-Paul, Anna Wilkinson, Ulrike Aust, Michael Steurer, Geoffrey Hall, Ludwig Huber. Touchscreen performance and knowledge transfer in the red-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonaria). Behavioural Processes, 2014; 106: 187 DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.06.003

 

Day of the Dragon!

Kadar, our male breeding Komodo dragon at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans.
Kadar, our male breeding Komodo dragon at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans.

Today is International Appreciate A Dragon Day!  Yeah, I know.  It sounds crazy, but if there is an international peanut butter day, then dragons can certainly have their turn in the international spotlight.  As soon as I heard that today was appreciate a dragon day, I was really psyched because one very special dragon came to my mind.  He was amazing in every sense of the word.

Because of this dragon, I learned and felt more than I ever thought possible from a 140 pound lizard.  I cared for him, bred him, trained him, enriched him, and during his last days on earth, I held him between my legs as he breathed his last breaths.

His name was Kadar and he was a Komodo Dragon.


Here There Be Dragons!

I was introduced to Kadar on the first day of a very challenging and amazing career path.  I had the pleasure of working at the Audubon Zoo in the Reptile Section for many years.  I was a reptile and amphibian “keeper” (animal caretaker) and an enrichment specialist.  Kadar was one of the many species of reptiles that opened my mind to the depth of intelligence and perfection that many animals have.  He dispelled many myths about reptiles, and showed us how to be more conscious of caring for reptiles in captivity.  Kadar was a gorgeous specimen, and quite a sight to behold!  He was a favorite among many zoo visitors and staff.

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Kadar gently chasing his mate, Kali around their exhibit

Leaping, Learning Lizards!

Force-free training was just barely beginning to be embraced by the zoo community when I was working there.  Thankfully, in 1999 we learned that “even lizards” can be taught to do almost anything because they are incredibly intelligent!  Each day at the zoo, there were scheduled public feedings.  Zoo visitors loved to come and watch us as we climbed to the top of Kadar’s exhibit, and then toss him a deceased rabbit, mackerel, or beef heart into his enclosure.  Kadar would come running over and gobble the gory goodies down within seconds!  The gory (but fascinating) scene was quite a sight to see!

Then a female reptile colleague and I taught Kadar to station where we wanted him to in his exhibit, using a laser pointer.  We also taught him to recall on command so we could shift him in and out of his night den without force.  He learned to target, and to trust people again.  We also learned how to safely work with him without using fear or force.

With training and enrichment we encouraged his natural hunting and stalking abilities by encouraging him to “hunt” for scents all around his enclosure, to mimic conditions that he would have experienced in the wild, on Komodo Island.  Through force-free, choice based training we gained Kadar’s trust, we eliminated fear on both ends of the stick!


Lessons Learned 

One day we needed to perform a medical procedure on Kadar (to remove a few rocks in his belly that he had ingested) and in the process, a vertebrae and some nerves in his neck were severely damaged.  Kadar soon lost his strong, regal gait and was not responding to his training cues.  He was becoming severely challenged while eating and moving around his enclosure.  We did everything we could to help him.  Our hospital staff worked around the clock during those last days to monitor his vital signs and keep him alive.  We took shifts at night breathing for him.

I will never forget the honor and respect I felt, holding him between my legs as I gently pushed air into his lungs, hoping that it would keep his organs and brain functioning.  We even took him to the Children’s Hospital next door to the zoo to perform a CAT Scan and MRI to see how extensive the damage was, but it was too late.  Kadar’s heart was still beating but he was no longer there.  He had passed in the night while in my arms.  We mourned his passing, but we never forgot what he taught us about reptile intelligence, and what he brought to the zoo community.  We all learned something from Kadar.

 


Not All Was Lost.

After Kadar passed, we were all heartbroken, but were able to honor his legacy by continuing the force-free reptile training movement with Kali, his very clever Komodo mate.  We taught Kali to station on a scale, allow nail trims, and to be crated.  Our team created a special crate designed to facilitate safe, force-free annual exams without anesthesia.  In the latter years, Kadar and Kali had to be anesthetized for these important annual exams.  This really cool create enabled the hospital staff to come out to our area for medical procedures such as weighing her, blood draws, radiographs (x-rays), colloquial swabs, and checking for eggs.

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Trained Komodo Dragons!

komodo dragon training reptile force free training and enrichement
Images from The Zoological Society of London

When we trained Kadar, there were hardly any force-free reptile training programs in existence at the time.  Thankfully, now zoos all around the world are utilizing more force-free training with the species that they breed and care for in captivity.  They use everything from laser pointers to target sticks and clicker training!   Below are just a few of the safe and enriching management tools that zoo staff around the world are using with Komodo Dragons to maintain their health and well-being:


One of the enrichment devices that has been developed at ZSL London Zoo’s Herpetology Department, in conjunction with Aussiedog© is a ‘Tug-Toy’.  This ‘Komodo Tug-Toy’ is the first of its kind and it comes complete with a strong elasticised bungee, two removable tug grips and several different bites.  The device was developed after lengthy email correspondence with specialists at Aussiedog©. We discussed every possible component and variable from anatomy, force and bite radius to enclosure size to what colour to use/not use (as Raja, our male dragon, is trained to a white target for example) and we carefully considered what texture and material would be preferable for the detachable bites.  The device can also be hung from a tree or retaining wall, and meat joints can replace the bites to encourage the natural pulling and tearing motions the dragon uses to consume carcasses.

Raja enjoying a game of Tug with keepers. This was a specially made "Tug Toy" safe for the handler and Komodo
Raja enjoying a game of Tug with keepers at the London Zoo’s Reptile House.  This “Tug Toy”  was designed to be safe for the handler and Komodo

Raja even has his own facebook page!

These training and enrichment techniques allow zoo keepers and medical staff to work safely with, and in close proximity to, Komodo dragons in captivity. These force-free techniques facilitate the animals’ well-being through mental and physical stimulation.


Lethal Lizards?

Many people are terrified of Komodos and see them as monsters.  This is not true.  Most komodos in captivity have strong bonds with their keepers. However, safety is always the utmost priority because they do have quite a bite when they are in prey drive!   Any number of their prey would attest to this (if they could). They are not slobbery monsters that will attack you at a moment’s notice.  They are usually calm, clean, and calculating.

Dirty Dragon?

New research from the University of Queensland published in the Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine has found that the mouths of Komodo dragons are surprisingly ordinary for a venomous species.

Venomous Varanus!

In 2009, scientists concluded that komodo dragons (and all monitor lizards and iguanas) produce venom.  Venom is a toxin that’s secreted by glands and injected into an animal by a bite or sting (versus how poison is delivered).  There is a common myth that highly toxic bacteria in a Komodo’s mouth is what’s responsible for ultimately killing the dragons’ prey.  Zoo and reptile management and researchers have long thought that the Komodo dragon kills its prey via blood poisoning from the 50 strains of bacteria in the dragon’s saliva.  Well, it turns out that the bacteria tale has been a “scientific fairy tale”.  They found that the levels and types of bacteria do not differ from any other carnivore; it’s the venom at work:

The dragon’s venom rapidly decreases blood pressure, expedites blood loss, and sends a victim into shock, rendering it too weak to fight.  In the venom, some compounds that reduce blood pressure are as potent as those found in the world’s most venomous snake, western Australia’s inland Taipan.

Fry used a medical MRI scanner to analyse the preserved head of a dead Komodo dragon and found that it has two long venom glands, running down the length of its jaw. They are the most structurally complex venom glands of any reptile. Each consists of six compartments, with ducts leading from each one to openings between the teeth.
Professor Fry used a medical MRI scanner to analyze the preserved head of a Komodo dragon. He found that it has two long venom glands, running down the length of its jaw. They are the most structurally complex venom glands of any reptile!  Each consists of six compartments, with ducts leading from each one to openings between the teeth.

Other venomous lizards, like the Gila monster, channel venom down grooves that run the length of their teeth but the Komodo dragon doesn’t have these – it just drips venom straight into the wounds that it inflicts. The venom itself consists of over 600 toxins, a chemical arsenal that rivals those of many snakes. Many of these poisons are familiar and they greatly exacerbate the blood loss caused by the dragon’s bite. They cause internal haemorrhaging from leaky blood vessels, prevent blood from clotting and cause muscle contractions and paralysis. Fry calculated that a typical adult dragon would need only 4mg of venom proteins to send a 40kg deer into toxic shock from collapsing blood pressure. A full venom gland packs at least eight times this amount.

After the CHOMP,  a Komodo waits patiently, following its bitten prey for miles in a leisurely fashion. He or she then locates the dead animal by its smell.  Like most lizards, Komodo dragons have an exquisite sense of smell.  But it’s not the kind of smell most of us are familiar with.  Like a snake, a Komodo “tastes” by collecting air with its forked tongue, then deposits the collected scent particles on receptors on the roof of its mouth.  Using this method, it can detect a dead animal up to five miles (eight kilometers) away!

The Komodo's sense of smell is its primary food detector. They detect odors much like a snake does. It uses its long, forked tongue to sample the air, which the two tongue tips retreat to the roof of the mouth, where they make contact with the Jacobson's organs. Here the air is deciphered carefully.
The Komodo’s sense of smell is its primary food detector. They detect odors much like a snake does. It uses its long, forked tongue to sample the air, which the two tongue tips retreat to the roof of the mouth, where they make contact with the Jacobson’s organs. Here the air is deciphered carefully.

The chemical analyzers “smell” prey by recognizing airborne molecules.  If the concentration present on the left tongue tip is higher than that sampled from the right, it tells the Komodo that the prey is approaching from the left. This system, along with an undulatory walk in which the head swings from side to side, helps the dragon sense the existence and direction of odoriferous carrion from as far away as 2.5 miles (4 km), when the wind is right.


Varanus komodoensis Komodo
Open Wide! A captive Komodo showing off his clean mouth during an afternoon yawn in the sun

 


Komodo dragons are actually very clean animals.  After they are done feeding, they will spend 10 to 15 minutes lip-licking and rubbing their head in the leaves to clean their mouth. The inside of their mouth is also kept extremely clean by the tongue. ~Professor Bryan Fry, Associate professor from The University of Queensland


The Komodo dragon isn't a filthy, bacteria laden creature, as people believe. They are clean animals that are highly intelligent.
The Komodo dragon isn’t a filthy, bacteria-laden creature. They are clean animals that are highly intelligent.

Komodo Dragon

Scientific Name: Varanus komodoensis

Fast Facts:  

  • Thekomodo dragon is the world’s largest lizard.

    Komodos have a rough, durable skin reinforced with osteoderms (bony plates) protecting them from injuries from scratches and bites.
    Komodos have a rough, durable skin reinforced with osteoderms (bony plates) protecting them from injuries from scratches and bites.
  • They are classified as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), But with only 3,000 to 5,000 left in the wild the latest data suggests they are endangered.
  • Komodos are native to a few volcanic Indonesian islands of the Lesser Sunda group including Komodo, Rintja, Padar, and Flores. The largest island is only 22 miles (35 km) long.
  • Komodos are called the ora, or “land crocodile” by locals
  • For centuries, a local tradition required feeding the dragons. Hunters would leave deer parts behind after a hunt, or sacrifice goats. In the past, the practice maintained a friendly relationship with the animals. Ancient customsstrictlyforbidharmingthekomodos, which is why they survived on their native islands and became extinct elsewhere.

    Kadar and Kali, our breeding pair, mating on exhibit at the Audubon Zoo
    Kadar and Kali, our breeding pair, mating on exhibit at the Audubon Zoo
  • Female Komodo dragons have been known to give birth without ever mating with a male dragon. Some call these “virgin births” but it’s actually parthenogenesis.
  • They are one of the most intelligent reptiles! They can distinguish between their different keepers in a zoo, by voices and different clothing worn by their keepers. Locals on the islands also say that the dragons know who’s who!
  • Their vision and sense of smell are highly sophisticated.
  • The largest verified specimen reached a length of 10.3 feet (3.13 m) and weighed 366 pounds (166 kg)
  • Komodos have about 60 teeth. Teeth grow back quickly if when they lose any.
  • They use their teeth to cut their prey into sections, and then swallow without chewing.

    When raised in captivity alongside humans, Komodos have been known to be quite docile and curious lizards
    When raised in captivity alongside humans, Komodos have been known to be quite docile and curious lizards
  • They rarely drink water. They prefer to get their fluids from the food they eat.
  • They can consume up to 80 percent of their body weight in one sitting.
  • They will a variety of prey including snakes, other lizards, young komodos, fish, eggs, carrion, deer, pigs, goats, dogs, horses and water buffalo.
  • They prefer to hunt as an ambush predator; they lay in wait, then surprise their prey. Chomp!
  • When hunting large prey, he/she attacks the feet first, knocking the animal off balance. When hunting smaller prey, h/she usually lunges straight for the neck.
  • They are extremely fast for a lizard of their size. In short bursts, they can reach speeds of 12 miles per hour.
  • JuvenileKomodos are very agile climbers. They live a more terrestrial life (in trees)untiltheyarefully-grown and able to protectthemselvesfromotheradultKomodos on the ground.

     Komodo dragons hatched in AZA zoos  are giving a small boost to their endangered population.
    Komodo dragons hatched in AZA zoos are giving a small boost to their endangered population.
  • Komodos can throw up the contents of their stomachs when threatened to reduce their weight in order to flee.
  • Large mammal carnivores (lions, tigers, etc.) tend to leave 25 to 30 percent of their kill unconsumed, (leaving the intestines, hide, skeleton, and hooves). Komodos eat much more efficiently; they only leave 12 percent of their prey. They eat bones, hooves, and the hide. They also eat intestines, but only after swinging them vigorously to scatter the feces from the meal.
  • Because large Komodos cannibalize young ones, the young komodos will roll in fecal matter which seems to be a scent that the larger dragons avoid.
  • Young dragons also have rituals of appeasement; the smallerlizardspacingaroundakomodo feeding circle in a ritualized walk.Theirtailis stuck straight out and they throw their body from side to side with exaggerated convulsions. This helps them to stay near the feeding circle without being attacked.
    Photo by National Geographic An adult Komodo dragon enjoys the view near Indonesia's Komodo village.
    Photo by National Geographic
    An adult Komodo dragon enjoys the view near Indonesia’s Komodo village.

  • Dragons may live up to 30 – 50 years in the wild, but scientists are still studying this.
  • Female Komodo Dragons live half as long as males on average, due to their physically demanding ‘housework’ (building huge nests and guarding eggs for up to six months).
  • Scientists have been searching for antibodies in Komodo blood in order to help save human lives.
  • Poaching, human encroachment, and natural disasters are its greatest threats.
The Denver, Phoenix and Memphis Zoo all successfully hatched Komodo dragons last year. Even the famous Betty White was excited!
The Denver, Phoenix and Memphis Zoo all successfully hatched Komodo dragons last year. Even the famous Betty White was excited! These hatchlings represent a joint conservation effort between zoos: the hatchlings will all go to different zoos for education and breeding purposes.

Recommended Reading for Lizard Lovers!

This book has the latest information on Komodo dragon biology, ecology, population distribution, and behavior.  It also includes a step-by-step management and conservation techniques, both for wild and captive dragons.  This model is a useful template for the conservation of other endangered species.
This book has the latest information on Komodo dragon biology, ecology, population distribution, and behavior. It also includes a step-by-step management and conservation techniques, both for wild and captive dragons. This model is a useful template for the conservation of other endangered species.

This blog is dedicated to you, Kadar.  Thank you for teaching me what reptiles are capable of, what exquisite and perfect creatures you are, and for teaching me more than I could have ever imagined.  You were loved and adored by so many.

dragon


Resources:

“Komodo Dragons, Biology and Conservation” by James B. Murphy, Claudio ciofi, Colomba de La Panouse, Trooper Walsh

http://www.uq.edu.au/news/article/2013/06/fear-of-komodo-dragon-bacteria-wrapped-myth

http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/2009/05/18/venomous-komodo-dragons-kill-prey-with-wound-and-poison-tact/

http://nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/reptilesamphibians/facts/factsheets/komododragon.cfm