Reptile Intelligence

Reptiles tend to get a bad rap when it comes to intelligence, but they are far more complex than many people realise. They have a high brain-to-body ratio and can memorise mazes.


The 17 articles returned that assumed or explored the concept of reptile sentience (using keywords such as anxiety, emotion and pleasure) represent a small percentage of the overall research articles on reptiles.


While it may be easy to dismiss a reptile such as a tortoise, these creatures have more going on in their brains than most of us realize. They are quite smart, live long lives, and have an incredible memory. In fact, scientists are referring to them as the elephants of the reptile world because of their ability to retain memories. These animals are also very selective in what they do remember. They will only etch an experience into their mind if they see it as vital to survival. This includes things like their owners as they often recognize the people who feed them, shelter them, and protect them from predators.

A new study has shown that tortoises can learn and hold onto experiences for a very long time. In this particular experiment, scientists trained Galapagos and Aldabra giant tortoises to bite a colored ball on the end of a stick. Upon completion of this task, the researchers tested them three months later to see if they remembered how to do it. The first two tasks proved that the tortoises did recall how to perform them, but the third was a little more difficult as they had to figure out which color ball to bite. Interestingly, they found that the tortoises that were trained in groups did better than those that were trained individually. This suggests that tortoises can learn from each other, which would be beneficial in the wild.

Scientists have previously been skeptical about tortoises’ cognitive abilities, but this new research has them taking note of their incredibly impressive memory and learning skills. This is especially important since tortoises spend much of their lives on land, requiring them to remember where they are and where food sources are located. This is one of the only ways they can survive in their natural habitat, making it a crucial skill.

It is estimated that tortoises can live over 100 years, which means they have had decades to accumulate memories and knowledge. This is why it’s so fascinating to see how much they can learn in a relatively short amount of time.

The researchers were surprised to find that the tortoises had such a good memory even after nine years. This goes to show that they are not the slow, stupid creatures we typically think of when we hear the word “reptile.”

These tortoises can also navigate simple mazes that require them to choose the right path. This is particularly amazing given that they do not have a hippocampus, which helps mammals and birds with spatial cognition. In addition to this, the researchers also discovered that the Emerald Anole lizards in their study could solve problems that would have stumped their human counterparts.


Lizards may not have the large brains of mammals, but they can still be incredibly intelligent. It’s often thought that animals with larger brains (relative to body size) are more intelligent and this is true for octopuses, dolphins and humans, but it’s also true of reptiles, with monitor lizards, tegus and the little green anole all having impressive levels of cognitive intelligence. In one study, emerald anoles were found to be as capable in a problem-solving task as titches (birds), even though lizards lack the brain structures of birds and mammals for such behavior. However, exothermy does slow intelligence, but doesn’t necessarily prevent it completely.

In fact, one of the reasons why tegus are said to be so smart is because their brains grow and adapt through operant conditioning. This is the most common method of training animals, and it requires them to learn from their experiences. The more positive reinforcement they receive, the more likely they are to repeat the behavior, and it’s a fundamental part of intelligence.

Another reason tegus are often considered to be the smartest reptile is because they have excellent memories. In one study, Galapagos tortoises that were trained to distinguish between two different colored balls could remember the color discrimination 9 years after being taught, which is remarkable for a reptile.

The good news is that many pet lizards are very intelligent, and their owners can demonstrate this by providing them with enrichment in their habitats and trying to train behaviors. For example, providing a floating turtle feeder or encasing their insects in jars they need to open can help them exercise their natural problem-solving skills.

Despite the impressive level of intelligence in reptiles, the scientific literature has only recently started to take this seriously. It is often ignored by people who are not scientists, or overlooked when it comes to assessing animal welfare. This is largely due to the perception that reptiles are not as intelligent as mammals and, therefore, don’t suffer.

But this is not only untrue, it can actually hurt a reptile’s well-being. If we can showcase reptiles’ ability to feel pain, anxiety and other emotions, it may help us to reposition them alongside mammalian species and change how they are perceived and treated in captivity. The research into reptile intelligence needs to continue, but it should also be applied more widely in order to ensure that all of these incredible creatures get the chance to live a full and happy life. This includes ensuring that they are provided with the appropriate conditions in which to thrive, and this is why a better understanding of their cognitive and emotional states is essential.