Tag Archives: Tortoise

‘Living rocks’ show surprising cognitive abilities

They’re not as slow as we thought.

Turtles and tortoises have been around since the middle Jurassic, making them one of the oldest groups of reptiles still in existence. However, while biologists have studied these creatures for centuries, surprisingly little is known about their cognitive abilities. When it comes to giant land tortoises, almost nothing is known about their cognitive power.

We do know that they are visual animals. They travel long distances in the wild, interacting with other individuals, but giant tortoises have been described as “living rocks” — not just due to their slow movement, but also due to their presumed inflexible cognitive abilities. Darwin observed that they travel long distances for purposes that are not always apparent, and a 1914 study noted that “The tortoises do a great deal of apparently unnecessary traveling; and, though slow, are so persistent in their journeys that they cover several miles a day.”

But while the tortoises might be slow to move, they are not slow to forget.

Tamar Gutnick and Michael Kuba at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel, and Anton Weissenbacher at Schönbrunn Zoo in Vienna trained Galapagos tortoises (Chelonoides nigra) and Aldabra tortoises (Aldabrachelys gigantea) to bite a ball of a particular color: blue, green or yellow. They were presented with a colored dog toy attached to the end of a dowel. When they would bite the right color, they would get a treat. All the animals easily learned this task.

After a while, tortoises would only bite one color.

Then, the researchers came back 95 days after the initial training to see if the tortoises still remember the color — and they did. All 6 animals who received the training remembered the task successfully.

Remarkably, even when researchers returned after 9 years, the 3 available tortoises all remembered the “right” color to eat.

It’s too small of a sample size to draw any statistics, but the fact that the tortoises from both species seemed to remember the task even after such a long time is a strong indication that we may have underestimated their abilities.

“Our results highlight flexibility in learning in tortoises and support growing evidence of the significance of social interaction and social learning in reptiles. Comparative study of a variety of reptile species, likely including zoo-based research, will allow for a more thorough understanding of the ecology and evolution of learning in reptiles and processes shaping social learning in all vertebrates,” the study concludes.

The study has been published in the journal Animal Cognition.

Tortoises divorce after 115 years together

A century-long marriage love story has come to an end, as Bibi apparently can’t stand Poldi anymore. After 115 years together, the two tortoises separated.

Unlike Bibi and Poldi, these two lovely tortoises in Beauvoir, France, are still very much in love — for now, at least. Image Credits: William Warby/Flickr.

Bibi and Poldi were both born around 1897. They met not long after that, fell in love, spending a lot of time together. They shared a living space at Switzerland’s Basel Zoo for half a century, and have spent the last four decades cohabiting at Happ Reptile Zoo in Klagenfurt, Austria. But things recently turned south.

Zoo carers noticed that Bibi (the female) seemed annoyed by Poldi’s attention. Carers hoped the situation would improve, but it only got worse, culminating in a direct attack from Bibi, who bit off a bit of Poldi’s shell. Tortoises don’t have teeth, but they do have strong jaws which can cause significant damage.

The downfall started a few years ago.

“[T]hey have been together since they were young and grew up together, eventually becoming a pair,” zoo chief Helga Happ said in 2012. “But for no reason that anyone can discover, they seem to have fallen out. They just can’t stand each other.”

Fast forward to 2019 — the zoo has tried counseling, “romantic food”, anything they could think of — nothing worked. Even the sight of Poldi would make Bibi hiss.

 “We get the feeling they can’t stand the sight of each other anymore,” Happ said.

So, the zoo staff was finally forced to give up. They built two houses with two baths and the two tortoises are officially separated. The tortoises which have been together longer than anyone can remember, are divorced.

Still, given the extreme longevity of the species, there is still hope that they might get over their differences and re-discover harmony. For now, though Bibi appears to be enjoying her new life as a single gal. As for Poldi, it’s not exactly clear what his feelings are.

Tortoises are not monogamous in a sexual sense, but biologists believe it’s uncommon for two animals who have been together for such a long time to split up, especially in captivity.


Wild chimpanzees learned how to crack open tortoises — and they’re sharing the knowledge among themselves

Turns out that you can teach an old chimpanzee new tricks — more to the point, they’ll teach themselves.


Image credits Simon Bardet.

A team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and the University of Osnabrück (both in Germany) report that wild chimpanzees in the Loango National Park, Gabon, have learned how to crack open and eat tortoise. The chimps will smash tortoises against tree trunks in order to get through their tough shells. This is the first time such behavior has been observed and, the team adds, it likely is a cultural one — meaning the chimps share this knowledge inside their groups and through generations.

Breaking their fast

“We have known for decades that chimpanzees feed on meat from a variety of animal species, but until now the consumption of reptiles has not been observed,” says Tobias Deschner, a primatologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

“What is particularly interesting is that they use a percussive technique [i.e. smashing] that they normally employ to open hard-shelled fruits to gain access to meat of an animal that is almost inaccessible for any other predator.”

The team observed this behavior in the newly-habituated Rekambo community. Ten chimpanzees engaged in this behavior a total of 38 times over the dry season, the team explains, a period when other food such as fruit is abundant. Tortoise-whacking seems to be a highly social activity for the chimpanzees, the team explains.

“Sometimes, younger animals or females were unable to crack open the tortoise on their own. They then regularly handed the tortoise over to a stronger male who cracked the tortoise’s shell open and shared the meat with all other individuals present,” says Simone Pika, first author of the study and a cognitive scientist at the University of Osnabrück.

The authors also detail an exceptional case in which an adult male, who was sitting on his own up in a tree, cracked a tortoise, ate half, and hid the rest in a tree fork. The male climbed down from the tree, built his nest in another one nearby, then returned the next morning to eat the leftover tortoise. This particular case suggests that chimps can plan for the future, says Pika, which is quite an exciting find.

“The ability to plan for a future need, such as for instance hunger, has so far only been shown in non-human animals in experimental and/or captive settings. Many scholars still believe that future-oriented cognition is a uniquely human ability. Our findings thus suggest that even after decades of research, we have not yet grasped the full complexity of chimpanzees’ intelligence and flexibility.”

“Wild chimpanzee behaviour has been studied now for more than 50 years and at more than ten long-term field sites all across tropical Africa,” Deschner adds. “It is fascinating that we can still discover completely new facets of the behavioural repertoire of this species as soon as we start studying a new population.”

Pika says that chimpanzees offer a unique window into our own history, and that observing them in the wild can teach us a lot about our own evolution.

The paper “Wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes troglodytes) exploit tortoises (Kinixys erosa) via percussive technology” has been published in the journal Science Reports.