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It’s Surprisingly Easy To Train A Tortoise To Use A Touchscreen

<p><a class="checked-link" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/asokolik/8004675832/sizes/m/" style="text-decoration: none;">Anthony Sokolik</a></p>

Considering their lack of fingers and thumbs, red-footed tortoises take to touchscreens rather quickly. Scientists recently taught four of these reptiles to peck at a touchscreen to get a strawberry as a reward.

"It was surprisingly easy to train them," says Anna Wilkinson, an animal cognition expert at the University of Lincoln in England, to The Dodo. Two of the tortoises were even able to relate icons on a touchscreen to real-world locations, Wilkinson, along with colleagues at the University of Lincoln and the University of Vienna in Austria, report in the journal Behavioral Processes.

Unlike amphibians that try to eat digital iPhone ants, these tortoises weren't relying on instinct to attack a moving image. Instead, to earn a berry, they selectively learned to peck a blue circle on the left or right side of a screen. All of the tortoises, it turned out, were up to the task. Two of the tortoises, flush with the knowledge of how to operate a touchscreen, moved on to a subsequent test: selecting a blue bowl on the side of the box that mirrored the location of the winning circle on the screen.

Jennifer Vonk, a psychologist at Oakland University in Michigan who was not involved with the study, tells LiveScience that it's possible the turtles didn't make a connection between the touchscreen and the bowls but simply "had a preferred side."

The study authors, however, believe that the tortoises' correct choices indicate "an ability to transfer learning from the touchscreen to a 3-D test arena." As Wilkinson points out, "animals have to learn to navigate efficiently around their environment to locate food, sun spots and shelter." To do this, reptiles rely on the part of their brain called the medial cortex (which controls spatial behavior, similar to the area in our brain called the hippocampus). Comparing the way reptiles and mammals think, according to Wilkinson and her colleagues, can teach us how brains evolved to guide us to our sunny spots.