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Tortoises use touchscreens for University of Lincoln project

A group of tortoises have learnt how to use touchscreen technology as part of a University of Lincoln project trying to teach different animals navigational techniques.

The project, led by Dr Anna Wilkinson of the School of Life Sciences, used red-footed tortoises.

Tortoises were picked by the team due to the differing brain structure of reptiles to mammals. The researchers then tested how they rely on cues to navigate their environment.

Dr Wilkinson explained: “Tortoises are perfect to study as they are considered largely unchanged from when they roamed the world millions of years ago. This research is important so we can better understand the evolution of the brain and the evolution of cognition.”

Dr Wilkinson gave the tortoises treats such as strawberries when they looked at, approached and pecked blue circles on a screen.

Dr Anna Wilkinson of the School of Life Sciences with one of the tortoises. Photo: UoL
Dr Anna Wilkinson of the School of Life Sciences with one of the tortoises. Photo: UoL

Two of the tortoises, called Esme and Quinn, then went on to apply their knowledge. The duo were placed in an arena with two empty food bowls, similar to the blue dots of the touchscreen – instinctively the tortoises went to the bowls on the same side they had been taught to peck on the touchscreen.

Dr Wilkinson said: “Their task was to simply remember where they had been rewarded, learning a simple response pattern on the touchscreen.

“They then transferred what they had learned from the touchscreen into a real-world situation. This tells us that when navigating in real space they do not rely on simple motor feedback but learn about the position of stimuli within an environment.”

She added: “The big problem is how to ask all animals a question that they are equally capable of answering. The touchscreen is a brilliant solution as all animals can interact with it, whether it is with a paw, nose or beak. This allows us to compare the different cognitive capabilities.”

The study ‘Touchscreen performance and knowledge transfer in the red-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonaria)’ is now published in the Behavioral Processes journal.