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Reptiles Are Really Intelligent; We Were Just Giving Them the Wrong Tests

Now that scientists are coming up with new experiments and methods, they're realizing that there's a lot more to the reptile brain than they once thought

Image: Austin White

Reptiles might be cold blooded, but their brains are deceivingly nimble, as Emily Anthes reports in the New York Times. It turns out that while scientists have loved putting mammals, birds and even fish through intelligence tests, reptiles have been largely ignored.

Scientists only recently started exploring the mind of the reptile, but when they did, they found that reptiles are actually pretty smart. Take Moses the tortoise, for example. When put in a maze, Moses not only found her way to each and every strawberry treat, but she seemed to do so without using her sense of smell. In another experiment, anole lizards were able to reason out new strategies for getting at prey.

All this intelligence had largely slithered under the radar, Anthes writes:

By using experiments originally designed for mammals, researchers may have been setting reptiles up for failure. For instance, scientists commonly use “aversive stimuli,” such as loud sounds and bright lights, to shape rodent behavior. But reptiles respond to many of these stimuli by freezing, thereby not performing.

Scientists may also have been asking reptiles to perform impossible tasks. Lizards do not use their legs to manipulate objects, Dr. Leal said, “so you cannot develop an experiment where you’re expecting them to unwrap a box, for example.”

Now that scientists are coming up with new experiments and methods, they’re realizing that there’s a whole lot more to the reptile brain than they once thought.

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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