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How Intelligent Are Turtles? Instincts & Learning Ability

A turtle blowing a bubble

If you have a pet turtle, you have probably spent quite a bit of time watching them in their habitat. Like many pet owners, you have also likely wondered what your turtle thinks about. How do they perceive and recognize their environment?

Turtles are smart enough to have survived for millions of years but it is still difficult to define exactly how intelligent a turtle is, we can explain some general expectations for turtles’ intellectual abilities. Read on to learn more about turtles’ brains, instincts, experiential learning abilities, and intellectual variations in breeds of turtles.


The Turtle’s Brain

Turtles are reptiles, so their brains are different from those of mammals. Their brains are smaller and less complex. They generally have smaller cerebral hemispheres than mammals. This is the area of the brain that controls reasoning and learning. However, turtle brains have changed over time as turtles have survived and adapted over the last 250 million years.

One study found that the turtles of today have far better sight, hearing, and sense of smell than those from millions of years ago. These adaptations and increased brain complexity have allowed turtles to survive and thrive as a species for millions of years.

red eared slider turtle basks on a rock in a turtle pond
Image By: Gerald A. DeBoer, Shutterstock

Defining Intelligence

Although their brains have become more complex, turtles are not capable of performing the same tricks and tasks as mammals and other species. However, this does not mean they are not intelligent.

The way we define intelligence allows for many interpretations of whether or not an animal is smart. In the case of turtles, they are capable of learning through instinct and experience. Their main concern is survival, so turtles learn how to survive, how to get food, and how to stay safe.

To better define turtle intelligence, let’s take a look at the two types of learning they are capable of and how these have allowed turtles to survive for 250 million years.


Instinctual Learning

In general, instinctual learning ability is what allows an animal to survive. It propels them to find food and seek shelter from enemies. Instinctual learning also guides the reproduction and continuation of a species. The instinctual learning ability of a turtle will mean something different for each breed.

For example, sea turtles always go into the water at night. This is not a learned behavior, but rather an instinctual one that keeps them safe from predators.

Turtles also know how to seek out the food they need to survive. They have been known to travel quite far to find enough food. Turtles also have a shell that they retreat into when they are in danger or are frightened. Even young turtles know to do this. Like sea turtles retreating into the sea for safety at night, it is an instinctual response.

person carrying an Eastern Box Turtle
Image By: Lisa Holder, Shutterstock

Learning Through Experience

Along with instinctual learning, turtles also learn through experience. Turtles have been shown to learn how to solve problems such as finding their way through a maze just like a mouse.

Turtles can also learn how to recognize you, especially if you are the person who usually feeds them. This isn’t because your turtle likes you better than anyone else. Instead, it is because they associate you with food and thus, their survival.

Turtles have also been shown to recognize when it is mealtime. For example, if you feed your turtle at the same time every day, they may wait for their food in the spot that you feed them at that time each day.

Breeds of Turtles and Intelligence

There are several breeds of turtles that are commonly kept as pets. These include the North American wood turtle, box turtles, red-eared sliders, and painted turtles.

Of these, the North American wood turtle is often thought to be the most intelligent, primarily because of its ability to rapidly solve a maze.

All of the common pet turtle breeds display instinctual and learned intelligence to some extent. They all show the ability to recognize their owners and remember when it is mealtime.


Final Thoughts

While turtles may not be trainable like your cats and dogs, this doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent pets. Turtles have solid instincts that have allowed them to survive for 250 million years. They know when to retreat into their shells, take to the sea, and seek food. Turtles can also learn how to solve mazes, recognize their owners, and remember when it’s time to eat. Next time you feed your turtle, you can appreciate the way he waits for you in precisely the right spot and know that he recognizes that you are a key to his survival.

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Featured Image Credit: Pexels, Pixabay

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