Tortoises Trained To Use Touchscreen As Part Of Spatial Navigation Study

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online
An international team of scientists has successfully trained four red-footed tortoises how to use a touchscreen, according to new research appearing in the July edition of the journal Behavioral Processes.
The research, which was led by Dr. Anna Wilkinson of the University of Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences, was part of a study designed to teach the creatures navigational techniques. Previous research has demonstrated that red-footed tortoises are proficient in several types of spatial cognition tasks, including the radial arm maze.
For the new study, Dr. Wilkinson’s team attempted to determine if the tortoise was able of learning a spatial task in which they were required to touch a stimulus presented in a specific position on a touchscreen. They also looked at the relationship between this task and performance in a related spatial task requiring whole body movement.
Red-footed tortoises were selected because their brain structure is vastly different than that of mammals. In mammals, the hippocampus is used for spatial navigation, and while it is believed the reptilian medial cortex has a similar function, little behavioral research has been conducted in this field. In order to examine how tortoises learn to navigate around their environment, the study authors tested how they relied on cues to get around.
“Tortoises are perfect to study as they are considered largely unchanged from when they roamed the world millions of years ago. And this research is important so we can better understand the evolution of the brain and the evolution of cognition,” Dr. Wilkinson, who first started training the tortoises while at the University of Vienna, explained in a recent statement.

The study authors gave strawberries or other treats to the reptiles whenever they examined, approached and pecked blue circles on the screen. Two of the creatures went on to apply their knowledge to a real-life situation in which the research team placed them in an area with two empty food bowls that resembled the blue circles. Those tortoises went over to the bowl on the same side as the circles they had been trained to peck on the screen.
“Their task was to simply remember where they had been rewarded, learning a simple response pattern on the touchscreen,” Dr. Wilkinson said. “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.”
“The big problem is how to ask all animals a question that they are equally capable of answering,” she added. “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.”
In addition to Dr. Wilkinson, other authors of the study included Julia Mueller-Paul and Ulrike Aust of the University of Vienna’s Department of Cognitive Biology, Michael Steurer of the University of Vienna’s Faculty of Physics, Geoffrey Hall of the University of York’s Department of Psychology and the University of New South Wales’ School of Psychology, and Ludwig Huber of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna’s Messerli Research Institute.
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