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Are turtles smart?

While many do not consider turtles as intelligent, they are. Intelligence is a relative term. While turtles are unable to complete tasks and tricks mammals can do, they are intelligent in their way. For instance, sea turtles travel thousands of miles back to the beach they were born to breed. They navigate using the Earth’s magnetic field. To pinpoint their natal beach, they use the beach’s smell, low-frequency sounds, celestial cues, and other characteristics. So are turtles smart? Yes, they are in their way.

The Turtle’s Brain

The reptilian brain of a turtle is very different from that of mammals such as humans. The brain of a turtle is less complex than that of a mammal. The cerebral hemispheres are smaller. The cerebral hemispheres handle learning and reasoning.  This smaller size indicates that they are likely not as smart as mammals.

Regardless of this, their brain is still far more complex today than it was over 200 million years ago. Researchers discovered that the turtle’s brain has developed immensely over the last 210 million years. This brain development has led to better vision, hearing, and sense of smell.

Mental Capacity For Directional Movement and Spatial Learning

Sea Turtle swimming near the grassy bottoms of the ocean taken by Alan Graf
Sea Turtle swimming near the grassy bottoms of the ocean taken by Alan Graf. – source

Turtles are great navigators. As mentioned earlier, sea turtles are capable of returning to their natal beach (the beach where they hatched) years later as adults. It can take 27 to 50 years for some sea turtles such as green turtles to reach full maturity. They are still capable of navigating back to their natal beach after decades.

With the aid of satellite tags, several green turtles were tracked in the Indian Ocean. The data showed that the turtle navigated using the earth’s magnetic field. They can form a crude magnetic map which they follow. The data collected shows that, the turtles usually end up hundreds of miles off their destination island. They can realize they are at the wrong destination, correct course, and find the correct island.

Sea turtles can memorize distinct magnetic signatures and use that information to return to reefs and other aquatic habitats with abundant food. They can even memorize and remember the magnetic signature of their natal beach decades later.

Sea turtles can also navigate using smell and even the position of the sun.

Red-footed Tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonaria) on small pebbles and grass in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil
A Red-footed Tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonaria) on small pebbles and grass in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. – Source

Sea turtles aren’t the only turtles that are excellent navigators. Even freshwater turtles are excellent navigators. For instance, a wild male wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) was moved 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) from its home and it was able to return home. Wood turtles have also been known to be able to solve mazes as well as rats. A red-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonaria) has also been observed to be able to solve mazes. 


Capacity to Learn Through Observation

Turtle being held by red painted nails
Turtle being held by red painted nails.

While turtles aren’t social, they are capable of social learning. Researchers found that Florida red-bellied cooter (Pseudemys nelsoni) can learn to perform a task by observing other cooters perform that task. In this study, an experiment with a three-part task was designed.

Upon completion of the task, the turtle was rewarded with food. Two cooters were paired for the experiment. One turtle was the trained demonstrator who knew how to complete the task, the other turtle was an observer turtle who was new to the task.

The observer turtle had to observe the demonstrator and follow it to the location of a stimulus that indicated food. After the observation, the trained demonstrator is removed and the observer turtle has to use the information it learned to locate the correct stimulus independently. Four cooters were tested. After observing the trained demonstrator, all four were able to perform the task correctly and locate the stimuli that indicated food even in the absence of the demonstrator.

This study proved that turtles are capable of learning from other turtles through observation. They can memorize useful information and use it later for their benefit.

Capacity to Learn from their owner

We know that turtles can learn by observing other turtles but can they learn by observing their owners? Turtles learn through positive reinforcement. There is a limit to how much turtles are capable of learning as well as the tasks they can do.

Turtles aren’t dogs. Don’t expect them to be doing tricks your dog can such as rolling over or shaking your hand. They can however learn your routine and know when it is time for them to be fed.

Capacity to remember human faces

Turtles can recognize their owners and can tell humans apart. The best way to bond with your turtle is to feed them. With time, they come to recognize you as the one who provides for them. Turtles tend to stay away from people but most become attached to their owners. Some will follow their owner around. They can also tell different humans apart. If you treat them poorly, they will hold that against you. They will shy away when you approach.

It usually takes a long time for a turtle to warm up to a human. This is especially true of wild mature turtles. If you treat them with respect and care, they will warm up to you eventually. Turtles aren’t as sociable as dogs and their affection/attention towards their owner is mainly because their owners feed them. 

Capacity to play

Social play among animals is a trait of intelligence. Play allows the turtles to gain experience through interaction with one another, improve their physical condition, and even create social bonds. While turtles may not be as social as wolves and most other mammals, they do interact with other turtles. 

A study has shown that pond turtles (Emydidae) likely play with one another. This study focused on juvenile Florida red-bellied cooter observation. Precocious sexual behavior was observed among the turtles. The characteristics of the behavior among these turtles closely matched social play. Individuals even had their favorites and sought out specific individuals to interact with.

Smartest Turtle Species

The North American wood turtle is often considered to be the smartest turtle. This is debatable. Many turtle enthusiasts have found wood turtles to be more sociable.  They are also known to be able to navigate through mazes as well as rats. However, the North American wood turtle isn’t the only turtle to demonstrate such intelligence. Red-footed tortoises have also been observed to be able to solve mazes.

Florida red-bellied cooters have also been proven to be smart enough to learn new behaviors through observation.

Sea turtles such as green turtles can navigate thousands of miles back to their natal beach using only their senses.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do turtles recognize their owners?

Turtles can recognize their owners. Turtles have pretty good eyesight and can tell humans apart. It may take a while for your turtle to become used to you but once the turtle recognizes you, it will act differently around you. While they may shy away from other humans, they will welcome your present.

What is the IQ of a tortoise?

IQ stands for intelligence quotient and is used to assess human intelligence. Only humans have an IQ. turtles do not have an IQ and the intelligence of a turtle cannot be related to that of a human. Turtles are incapable of human language and cannot learn words. They cannot solve human problems as well.

The intelligence of a turtle is particular to a turtle. This has allowed them to survive for millions of years. The first turtles appeared during the Permian and have been around for an estimated 255 million years.

Do tortoises recognize their owners?

Similar to turtles tortoises can recognize their owners.

Do turtles have feelings?

While turtles may not be capable of complex emotions, they do have feelings. They can feel pain as they have pain receptors known as nociceptors. They can also feel fear and know to stay away from danger. Turtles can also feel stress. The presence of an unfamiliar human stresses most turtles. Aggressive handling is also stressful for most turtles. They can feel aggression as they have been known to fight and attack other turtles.

It is unknown if turtles can feel anger, happiness, or love. These emotions are human in nature and may be inappropriate to assess turtles based on these emotions.

Can turtles understand human language?

No, they cannot. They can be trained to respond to specific verbal commands that indicate food.

Do turtles have memory?

Yes, they do. Turtles have surprisingly good memories. Sea turtles can remember their natal beach years after leaving it. They can recall a trick to obtain a food reward even after going months without being exposed to the puzzle.


Are turtles smart? Yes, they are. You don’t survive and thrive for over 200 million years without being smart. The intelligence of turtles is quite dissimilar to that of humans. While turtles may be unable to do math or learn human vocabulary, they are capable of performing mental tasks that even humans are unable to. For instance, they can navigate thousands of miles back to the beaches where they hatched decades ago.

Studies have shown that turtles can learn from other turtles through observation. They can also learn from humans through observation. They can recognize the faces of the owners. They can remember how individuals treat them and adjust their behavior accordingly.


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