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Tech-savvy tortoises master touch screen

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Has your mother or grandmother been bugging you to explain how to work their smart phone's touch screen? Maybe you should ask a tortoise.

A new study designed to test tortoises' navigational skills showed that they are surprisingly adept at using touch screen technology to learn and remember directions. Researchers trained tortoises to use touch screen technology in exchange for treats of strawberries, and found that they were able to learn the touch screen and then use what they had learned in a real-life situation. They learned directions from the touch screen, then were able to use them to navigate outside.

"Generally people see reptiles as inert, stupid and unresponsive," said Anna Wilkinson, one of the study's lead researchers. "I would like people to see that there is something much more complex going on." Wilkinson is a senior lecturer of animal cognition at the University of Lincoln in England.

The research team studied red-footed tortoises, a species of tortoise that is curious about the world and enjoy eating treats. This makes them good to use for testing, Wilkinson said. One thing that makes the brains of red-footed tortoises unique is that they lack a hippocampus, the area of the brain that many mammals use for learning, memory, and spatial coordination. The tortoises may use the medial cortex for these functions instead, the researchers believe. They designed a study to test the way that tortoises learn, remember, and navigate.

The team trained tortoises to use touch screens by rewarding them with a treat every time they touched the screen. They caught on fairly quickly, according to the researchers.

"It's comparable to the speed with which the pigeons and rats do it," Wilkinson said in an interview with Live Science. "I've trained dogs to use a touch screen and I'd say the tortoises are faster."

The researchers trained four tortoises to use the touch screen. All four of them learned the task, although two eventually stopped participating. Wilkinson said that might have been because those two tortoises were two small to properly reach the screen.

The remaining two tortoises were taught a set of directions by tapping two blue circles; they were rewarded only when they tapped either the left or the right circle. The tortoises were then placed in a similar real-life environment, and knew to choose the same directions that they had learned from the screen.

This new study confirms other research showing that tortoises can be intelligent creatures.

"If you are taking on a reptile, you do need to consider their cognitive enrichment," Wilkinson said.

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