Reptile Intelligence: Cognitive Abilities of Cold-Blooded Pets

Updated May 12, 2022
Corn snake wrapped around woman hand

Reptiles are not necessarily thought of as "intelligent" compared to more common pets like dogs and cats. Some of this may be due to reptiles having different types of personalities and levels of affection for humans, unlike animals that are believed to be more social. However, evidence suggests that reptiles are incredibly intelligent creatures, so if you're wondering whether you can train your pet lizard or snake, the answer is a resounding "Yes!"

Are Reptiles Intelligent?

For a long time, there was little in the way of serious research into reptile cognition. Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM, who serves on the advisory board for Pet Life Today, states, "The intelligence of reptiles has not been well-studied, probably because it has simply been assumed that because they are rather 'primitive,' they simply can't be all that smart. But our understanding of reptile intelligence is starting to change."

The "Reptile Brain"

Reptiles were long thought of as having a primitive or "reptile brain" that was focused primarily on surviving. The model of the brain developed by neuroscientist Paul MacLean held that people have three brains that work both separately and together: A "reptilian brain" that focused on basic fight-or-flight behaviors, a limbic system, which focused on emotion and memory, and the neocortex, which was the center of reason and conscious deliberation.

However, the more we learn about reptiles, the more we begin to understand that the concept of the "reptile brain" for both humans and reptiles may be nothing more than a myth. Reptiles are not simply "input, output" machines who are purely survival-focused. They have been shown to have complex social behavior, including raising their young, engaging in play, and cooperating with others of their species, and are capable of emotional states, such as excitement, frustration, and anxiety.

Most Intelligent Reptile Species

Several studies provide fascinating insight into the intelligence of reptiles. Although researchers have not performed studies on every species of reptile kept as pets, Dr. Coates believes, "It's quite likely that similar forms of intelligence are present in other reptile species." Based on this scientific evidence, we've categorized the reptiles that may have the highest cognitive function.

1. Tortoises

Tortoises exude wisdom; and it's not just because they can live for more than a hundred years. These reptiles are very intelligent. One study completed by the University of Lincoln in England discovered that a tortoise could find its way through a maze using not only memory but also an ability to adapt their navigational strategy when factors like darkness were introduced into the experiment.

Not only do these animals have long lives, but they also have tremendously long memories. Galapagos tortoises involved in a study were trained to distinguish between two different colored balls. Even 9 years following their initial training, these tortoises recalled the same color discrimination.

2. Lizards

Hand Feeding Lizard

You're likely familiar with the great intelligence levels of Komodo Dragons and other monitor lizards, but don't discount the intellect of their smaller counterparts. Pet lizard species are also very smart. Dr. Coates cites one study where anoles demonstrated a surprising ability to problem-solve and gain access to food, even when presented with a challenge that was significantly different from one that they had previously experienced.

Dr. Coates reports on other studies that have shown that, Side-blotched lizards can learn and remember how to efficiently find their way to shelter within a maze." Finally, a study involving bearded dragons showed that these small lizards can learn to imitate other animals in order to open a door and retrieve a food reward. In addition to intelligence, studies suggest that lizards also experience emotions. With gentle handling, iguanas in a study displayed changes in their heart rate, which indicate an emotional response.

3. Snakes

Snakes, both large and small species, possess high cognitive abilities. In a study from the University of Rochester, corn snakes successfully found their way through mazes, and after repeating the course, improved their time based on spatial learning. In another study, snake intelligence was further confirmed by training wild Burmese pythons to press a button in order to receive a food reward. The pythons learned that only when the button was illuminated would they receive the reward.

Intelligence in Common Pet Reptiles

Have you ever wondered whether your pet reptile knows their name or can recognize you? The answers to these common questions posed by reptile parents can help strengthen the relationship you have with your pet.

Can Reptiles Recognize Their Owners?

A girl lying on the grass looking at a tortoise

Reptiles can recognize their owners, although the degree to which they do so may vary based on the species. It also can depend heavily on how much you interact with and handle your reptile. Veterinarian Dr. Sara Ochoa, DVM, notes that pet reptiles, "learn where the food is coming from and not to bite the person that feeds them. Some of them know who in the house is always giving them food and will move from one side of the cage to another."

This behavior has also been demonstrated in zoos, where reptiles clearly recognize people who handle and feed them regularly. Some reptiles, such as iguanas and tortoises, are known to show preferences for certain people over others.

Can Reptiles Recognize Their Name?

Reptiles cannot necessarily recognize their name as a spoken word in the way that a dog or cat can. You may notice a lizard coming toward you when you call their name, but there's a greater chance this is because the lizard associates your presence with things they want, such as food.

The more social the lizard, the more likely it will be that they will respond to your voice and presence. Bearded dragons are a good example of a friendly lizard that appears to gravitate toward human interaction and can be trained to respond to your voice. Whether they actually know a sound is their name is unclear.

Can Reptiles Come When Called?

Lizards can learn to come to you. Dr. Ochoa reports, "My tortoise will come to me when called. It can take him a few minutes to get to be, but when he is playing in my backyard, he will come to me if I call him." However, your success with teaching this behavior will vary with the type of reptile and their comfort level with you.

It will also depend on their environment at the time. For example, a snake basking in a cage may not feel motivated to come to you if they're comfortable and not hungry. Since some reptiles only feed once a week, it can be harder to coax them to come if they're not ready to eat.

They also may not come to you if there are strangers in the room. Animal trainer Linda Brodzik has trained her tortoises to come using a vibration as the cue. However, she notes that they will not come over if a stranger is there and they will even "shell up" if they feel nervous.

What Can You Train a Pet Reptile to Do?

The types of behaviors you can train a reptile to do will largely depend on their species and individual temperament. Examples of behaviors that pet reptiles have been trained to do include teaching bearded dragons to walk on leash or getting snakes to understand a specific visual or physical signal that indicates food is coming. Skilled animal trainer, Linda Brodzik, taught her tortoises Dewberry and Darwin to follow a target, "high five," detect scents, go to their kennel, and discern between different colors.

Training to Aid in Husbandry

Most behaviors that reptile owners teach tend to focus more on handling behaviors to make caring for their pets easier and reduce their chances of being bitten. Lizards, snakes, and turtles are commonly trained to learn many husbandry behaviors in zoos.

This is done through pairing the behavior with something they want, usually food, and with clicker and target training. Relates Dr. Coates, "Reptiles in zoos and other facilities are commonly trained to be more receptive to the handling and procedures needed for their well-being using techniques like positive reinforcement that are commonly used to train mammals and birds."

Promote Reptile Intelligence Through Enrichment

One of the reasons reptiles are not often thought of as intelligent by pet owners is that many haven't been given a chance to demonstrate it. The more you provide a reptile with mental and physical enrichment in their habitats, as well as attempt to train behaviors, the more chances you'll have to see examples of reptile intelligence in action. Consider adding more ways for them to work to get their food, such as floating turtle feeders and or encasing insects in jars they need to open.

Understanding Pet Reptile Intelligence

The more we learn about reptiles and their cognitive abilities, the more fascinating they become. Reptiles can demonstrate intelligence, and many can learn complex behaviors. They also can benefit greatly from enrichment. Spend some time learning about how your lizard, snake, tortoise, or turtle exists in the wild to come up with ways to keep their brains active, and you may be surprised to discover what they can do.

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Reptile Intelligence: Cognitive Abilities of Cold-Blooded Pets