In the Company of Reptilian Minds

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Reptiles are far more complex, aware, and intelligent animals than they are traditionally given credit for. In my career working with these remarkable animals, several experiences stand out that strengthened my appreciation for their complexity as observant, thinking beings. This month, rather than highlight a species or topic in ecology or conservation, I want to share a few of those stories. 

Rattlesnakes have an undeserved reputation as bloodthirsty beasts that will attack unprovoked. In actuality, they are usually quite docile and go to great lengths to avoid confrontation with humans. That became very clear to me in the summer of 2010. Earlier that year I found a pair of female Timber Rattlesnakes at their birthing rocks atop a ledge. Gestating females hang out near the same rock all summer, and I decided to check up on them a few times through the season. One day, in late July, one of the females had vanished, far too soon to have given birth.

The two female Timber Rattlesnakes I found under their birthing rock in the summer of 2010, several weeks prior to thinking one had vanished from the site. 

Concerned that she might have been preyed upon, I spent a few minutes trying to find her. I shined a light into the crevice under her rock, looked in the surrounding brush, and examined nearby leaflitter, to no avail. After several minutes, I decided to peer under her rock one more time. To get a good view, I got on my hands and knees, placed my head close to the ground, and used a light to look deep inside the rock crevice. As I did this, my head came within inches of a blueberry bush near the rock. Finding nothing, I rose to my feet and walked away. As I left, disheartened by the snake’s disappearance, I heard slithering through the leaflitter. Turning back, I saw her uncoil from the blueberry bush where I had just placed my head, and retreat to her rock. 

I had examined her hiding place several times, unaware at that time of how skilled rattlesnakes are at hiding. She knew I couldn’t see her, and she knew if she moved, or rattled, that she would blow her cover. Instead, she waited until the moment I turned away to head for shelter. This experience really opened my eyes to the lengths rattlesnakes will go to avoid confrontation. They are keenly aware of where our eyes are focused and whether we can see them. Unless they are sure their cover is blown, rattlesnakes often remain motionless in hopes we’ll pass by without noticing them. Confrontation, after all, would be dangerous for both parties involved. 

The Timber Rattlesnake at the bottom left of this photo was also well-camouflaged, and remained completely motionless until I looked directly at it. Only after being seen did he move into a defensive position and warn to go away with his rattle.

More recently, a wild Wood Turtle spent a few weeks at my house as it recovered from injuries after being hit by a car. Busy roads next to the river, and a stretch of rapids, made release at the exact spot he was found problematic. Instead, I took him to a spot along his stream half a mile away in hopes he knew the area. I’ve set hundreds of wild Wood Turtles down on the edge of a river after finding them during surveys, and this turtle did something I had never seen before.

He walked into the stream about 5 feet, paused, turned around, climbed back up the bank, and hung out with me for 20 minutes. As he resurfaced, he slowly looked over his shoulder in both directions, turning his head from side to side to carefully examine his surroundings. He began expanding his throat in and out in an exaggerated manner, perhaps using smell to figure out where he was. Then, he approached the stream and put his head in the water to look around. He then approached me one more time, examined some plants, and finally re-entered the stream and walked away. While I’d like to think him approaching me was some sort of message, it is more likely that he just didn’t regard me as a threat anymore. So, when I released him, he acted as if I wasn’t there and immediately set to work trying to figure out where he was. It was as if I had this rare opportunity to watch a wild Wood Turtle think, using all his senses to overcome his confusion and get his bearings. 

Footage of the Wood Turtle being released after recovering from being hit by a car.

As part of my job, I keep a few captive turtles at my house for use in educational programs. As such, I also have opportunities to witness a captive Wood Turtle, Shelly, use her brain and solve problems. Whether a turtle can be “trained” like dogs to perform tasks is questionable, but I do know that Shelly has trained me. 

One year after his injuries and release, this Wood Turtle had recovered nicely.

A few years ago, I heard a knocking sound coming from her enclosure. I went downstairs to see what was happening and found her batting her empty food bowl around and stomping it with her feet. Her behavior reminded me somewhat of the nightcrawler stomping behavior Wood Turtles are famous for. Figuring she was hungry, I fetched her some leafy greens and worms and went back to work. This repeated a few times over the next several months, and each time I went downstairs, Shelly was focused on her food bowl as she knocked it around. 

At first, she might have believed if she pushed the dish around enough, some hidden food would fall out. Then, maybe the 5th time she did this, her thought process had clearly changed. As I went downstairs, I found she wasn’t looking at her bowl, she was looking directly at the top of the stairs where I would appear. Instead of batting her dish around her enclosure, she was just tapping it with her foot as she looked for me. She wasn’t looking for food, she was telling me to feed her, and I obeyed. She still does this. 

Because I use captive turtles for educational programs, such as at this summer camp, I also have opportunities to observe turtle learning and thinking behaviors at home that I would be able to see in the wild.

I could prattle on and tell many more stories about moments that a reptile left me in awe over their awareness and thinking abilities. These three are just glimpses into the brains of reptiles, far from the full picture. I don’t actually know what any of the reptiles were thinking, all I have is my interpretation of their behaviors. And, perhaps I am anthropomorphizing a bit – it’s hard not to. Likewise, commonly held beliefs that reptiles are unintelligent are also heavily biased by the human experience. Dumber vs. smarter isn’t really the issue here. Reptiles think differently from us, which makes it hard for us to understand what is going on in their minds. 

In sharing these stories with friends and colleagues, I’ve learned that many of us have these moments with wild animals. As wildlife biologists, we sometimes have opportunities to get to know wild animals as individuals, not just as a member of a species. This also gives us a chance to learn about their unique personalities, and observe behaviors rarely witnessed in the wild. My hope in sharing these stories here is that others will gain a little more appreciation for reptiles as complex, thinking beings that deserve our respect.