An elephant’s memory can last a lifetime and a goldfish’s half a minute. But do turtles have a good memory? This is mind-blowing!
Do Turtles Have A Good Memory?
The simple answer is yes, and no. They do seem to possess significant long-term abilities when it relates to memories that could affect their survival. For everything else however, it appears their memory is not that powerful.
This is not something that is unique to turtles, as according to a study done by a team from Stockholm University, the average short-term memory span for all animals was 27 seconds.
Dogs, for instance, have a memory span that lasts about 2 minutes. Chimps interestingly enough perform much worse, at around 20 seconds.
Although that particular study left out reptiles, luckily a few others haven’t.
Researchers from the University of Lincoln found that tortoises do in fact possess quite strong long-term memory capabilities.
Red-Footed Tortoise Interesting Facts
In the study, red-footed tortoises were trained to identify colors that were associated with particular foods. For instance, a red-colored sheet meant that mango was nearby, whereas blue signified that apple-jelly was close, and so on. Moreover, each sheet was associated with different quantities of food. One-color meant a little bit of mango. Another a lot of mango. Another a little bit of apple jelly and so on.
After 18 months, the researchers were astonished to find that the tortoises were still able to identify all of the color cues! Quite powerful!
Are Box Turtles Smart?
Take North American box turtles for instance.
Every year, box turtles traverse across forests, ponds, creeks, valleys and even dangerous roads to return to food, water, mating, and nesting spots. And not just any spots, but spots they remembered.
In another study from the University of Tennessee, red-bellied cooters were not only trained to be able to obtain pellets from a transparent bottle but were also able to recall and demonstrate this ability even after a period of 2 years. And that is without any retraining of any kind.
The North American wood turtle, reputed to be one of the most intelligent turtle species on earth, has successfully demonstrated the ability to walk through a maze nearly as fast as a rat using food as a reward, and then be able to remember that same path for weeks afterward.
Due to their intelligence, the Ornate Wood Turtle is a very popular pet turtle species.
What this basically tells us is that turtles and tortoises do in fact have a good memory. At least when it comes to actions and behaviors that can directly affect its own survival.
That they are able to do this is also quite significant because turtles, like reptiles, do not have relative brain sizes as big as mammals and birds. The cerebral hemisphere, which houses the ability of animals to learn, move their muscles, and exhibit emotions, is noticeably much, much smaller in turtles.
Are Turtles Smart?
If turtles are able to remember things related to their own survival for long periods of time, what about their overall cognitive ability? How does that match up?
The answer is that it really depends on who you ask.
There isn’t a lot of consensus among turtle experts about how intelligent turtles are overall. Rather, it’s more along the lines of, “They are smart animals in the ways that they need to be.”
Again, this seems to harken back to the original hypothesis that turtles seem to possess significant mental faculties when it relates to their own survival.
- Relating to food or water
- Predators and prey
Things like that are going to stick inside a reptilian mind much more powerfully than something meaningless in a turtle’s world. Like being able to play for example.
Speaking of playfulness, there is some evidence to suggest that turtles are able to play, at least to some extent.
Natalie Angiers, a science columnist for the NYTimes, recounts the story of Pigface, a huge 40-year-old, 70-pound soft-shelled turtle who began mutilating himself by biting and tearing into his skin in his zoo habitat. The zookeepers, a bit perplexed, hypothesized that he might just be bored, and so they placed basketballs, hoop sticks and hoses inside his housing area. Soon enough, Pigface began playing with the toys, knocking and chasing them around and stopped digging and cutting into his own skin.
The idea was, maybe he was just bored?
Check out this article to find out more about a turtle’s intelligence: Are Turtle Smart? Do Turtles Have Brains?
Do Turtles Remember Their Owners?
There is certainly quite a bit of anecdotal evidence to suggest that turtles are able to remember their owners.
What isn’t really up for debate however is that turtles do not seem to recognize people in the same way that we do.
This line of thinking essentially says that a turtle doesn’t recognize its owner because it is its owner, but rather it recognizes its owner because it is him or her that feeds it and is often around it.
In the wild, turtles need to fend for themselves. They quickly find out where to go for food, what they can and cannot eat, what places are and aren’t safe, etc. In captivity, this process works similar, in that they are able to distinguish which person feeds them and/or spends time with them.
There are owners however that believe that their turtles can recognize them. One Quora author for instance bases this on the fact that his tortoises are able to seemingly differentiate between the different members of his family.
Suffice to say, I would wager that based on turtles’ long term cognitive ability when it relates to food, mating and survival, that many turtles would be able to recognize their owners even after a prolonged absence.
Do Turtles Have Feelings?
All the evidence seems to suggest that turtles, being reptiles, have incredibly basic and primitive emotions. Essentially, their existence really simply revolves around their survival.
Eating time. Mating time. Basking time. Swimming time. Sleeping time. Rinse and repeat.
As their relative brain size is much smaller they simply lack the cognitive ability for feelings the same way that mammals, let alone humans have.
But just because they are cold-blooded doesn’t mean they are necessarily cold-hearted.
I read a really interesting story, about 2 massive green sea turtles at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California.
Turtles Memory Span
It goes like this.
Archie, one of the green sea turtles, was given as a loan from another aquarium, to join Herb, the original turtle, in their enormous habitat in the Outer Bay wing. Very soon, they were spotted sleeping and swimming side by side. They soon would quickly prove to be inseparable from each other.
However, tragedy struck one day as one of the grates underneath the water began to dislodge. Archie and Herb, being the curious, inquisitive creatures they are, managed to find a way into the grate. The problem was getting out. Archie did, but Herb was stuck.
After being found by divers, the staff performed CPR and seemed to revive Herb, until he died 2 days later.
What was really interesting was Archie’s response. He refrained from all food and didn’t move for nearly a week. On the surface, it seemed that he mourned for his friend.
Within a few weeks, however, he was back to his regular self, swimming, eating and sleeping the same as before.
This seems to suggest, that if turtles do in fact have feelings, they have them on some sort of very basic, primitive level. At least relative to humans.
- Turtles do possess very powerful learning and long-term memory if it relates to their own survival.
- Turtles short-term memory is, like other animals, quite limited.
- It’s up for debate as to how long turtles can continue to recognize their owners after a separation.
- Turtles for the most part lack feelings, although they seem to sometimes exhibit them on a very primitive level.