Tortoises Learn to Use Touchscreens in Scientific Study


The animals had to pick the right shape on a touchscreen to receive a reward in a test on spatial cognition

Vashti Hallissey
  • 7 august 2014

You might think tortoises are slow but they are very quick at learning to use technology, a new study shows. In a piece of research from the University of Lincoln, tortoises carried out a series of tasks involving touchscreens to test their ability to remember spatial locations.

Carried out by Dr Anna Wilkinson, a senior lecturer in the school of life sciences, and colleagues, the study investigated the ways that reptiles record information on location.

While you and I are able to rely on GPS to navigate the world around us, reptiles have to record all of this information mentally and retain it for their survival.

Dr Wilkinson tells PSFK:

 We were interested in investigating what they learned about when remembering spatial locations. This is important because animals have to learn to navigate efficiently around their environment to locate food, sun spots and shelter.

The research aimed to explore the differences between the ways that mammals and reptiles learn about physical space.

Dr Wilkinson explains:

The brain structure of reptiles is very different to that of mammals, who use the hippocampus to do this. It is thought that the reptilian medial cortex serves as a homologue, however very little behavioral work has actually examined this. We are interested in identifying similarities and differences between the mechanisms underlying spatial search behavior in reptiles and mammals as it can inform us about the evolution of the brain.

The study tested four red-footed tortoises, a type of tortoise that has performed particularly well at spatial cognition tasks in the past.

In the touchscreen training, the tortoises were placed in front of a vertical touchscreen which showed a series of shapes. Firstly, a red triangle would appear and then it would vanish to be followed by two blue circles on either side of the screen.

If the tortoise pressed the correct circle, using its head to touch the screen, an edible treat would be released via a feeder. However, if it chose the wrong one, the test would be paused for three seconds before beginning again.

In the test itself, this concept was translated into a physical arena. The tortoise had a barrier in front of it which was lifted to reveal two blue bowls, one on the left and one on the right.

Dr Wilkinson describes why the test was both digital and physical:

The study investigated whether tortoises were able to generalize a spatial task from on context (the touchscreen where they simply had to tap their choice) to another, an arena where they had to walk towards the correct spatial position.

The study tested whether the tortoise would apply the reasoning it had learnt in the training, for example, by walking to the right bowl if the right circle had previously been associated with a reward.

In the second stage of the test, the researchers switched the food over to the other bowl. They then analysed whether the tortoises retained this knowledge when returning to the touchscreen task.

The study showed that red-footed tortoises are able to use a touchscreen. Dr Wilkinson tells us, “They learned to use the screen fast, equivalent to that seen in other animals”.

Two of the tortoises who took part were able to solve spatial tasks via a touchscreen and to transfer these learnings to a physical space.

Even more impressively, they were able to retain this information over a long period of time. “I was impressed with the accuracy of retaining the touchscreen information after a 3 month break”, Dr Wilkinson says.

While this study is too small to draw conclusions about all tortoises from, it is very promising in enabling researchers to compare the way that mammals and our cold blooded cousins learn. Further research into this area could help to uncover the mysteries of the human brain and let us marvel at how well tortoises are keeping up with the latest technology.

The study

[h/t] Wired

Video and Images: Wired

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