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How Smart Are Tortoises? What Science Says

Kathryn Copeland

By Kathryn Copeland

Marginated tortoise (Testudo marginata) close up

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When you think about intelligence in species other than humans, you likely imagine dolphins or gorillas, but have you ever considered the tortoise?

The tortoise is famous for the Aesop fable, “slow and steady wins the race,” which certainly indicates some wisdom, but just how wise are they? Conversely, they have also been thought of as being slow and stupid. Is this true?

Tortoises might move slowly, but they have incredible long-term recall and can even be trained. If you would love to learn more about how smart the tortoise is, read on!

Why Are Tortoises Thought to Be Not That Bright?

It’s actually quite challenging to judge the intelligence of a species without comparing them to human intelligence. But animals have their own intelligence that features strongly in their survival.

The concept of tortoises not being that bright primarily came about when explorers would take giant land tortoises and keep them in storage on their ships, providing the sailors with fresh meat. But that is far more about their slow speed than their smarts.

Charles Darwin noted the Galápagos tortoise would travel long distances for their needs, such as where they would eat, sleep, or drink, which requires a good memory.

african spurred tortoise resting on the ground
Image Credit: Anneke Swanepoel, Shutterstock

The Study That Proved That Tortoises Are Smart

In 2019 1, Seychelles and Galápagos tortoises at Vienna and Zürich Zoos were tested with three increasingly challenging tasks. The researchers used positive reinforcement training, which worked by rewarding the tortoises with their favorite treats after they exhibited the correct behavior.

1. Training

The first task required the tortoises to bite a colored ball on the end of a stick. In the second task, researchers gradually increased the distance to 3 to 6 feet away, so the tortoises had to walk to bite the ball.

The final task had each tortoise trained to bite a specifically colored ball. Following this, they had to choose between two balls, one of which was the correct color.

2. Long-Term Memory

Three months after training these tortoises, the researchers went back and retested them on the same tasks. All the tortoises were able to perform the first two tasks, though they weren’t able to remember which colored ball they had been assigned for the third task.

But five of the six tortoises relearned the correct colored ball much faster than the first time. This indicates that the tortoises have residual memory.

The researchers followed up again 9 years later with three of the original tortoises, which remembered most of the training that they had been taught almost a decade earlier.

3. Group Learning

An interesting outcome from the study was that tortoises taught in a group learned better and more efficiently than those taught separately. It’s thought that in the wild, tortoises likely depend on each other to learn where to find food and water or anything else of importance.

This is particularly noteworthy because giant tortoises aren’t known to be social, but the results speak for themselves!

close up of a greek tortoise
Image Credit: Erni, Shutterstock

turtle divider AH

Red-Footed Tortoises

2017 study found that the Red-Footed Tortoise from South America could remember where they had stashed their food for up to 18 months. Additionally, they could remember quite specifically where they stashed their favorites.

This told researchers that tortoises have an excellent recall of where they store their food and that they apply judgment about the quality of the food.

An additional study in 2014, also with the Red-Footed Tortoise, had them navigate a touchscreen quite successfully.

Social Interactions

The Aldabra Tortoise was studied in 2022, and the researchers found that the tortoises had distinct personalities unrelated to sex or their environment. They also behaved differently in separate events and to individuals—vets, strangers, and keepers were all treated uniquely.

Researchers found that the tortoises preferred interacting with their keepers during the training and tests. This suggests that tortoises receive a form of enrichment while engaging in social behavior.

Russian tortoise
Image Credit: Vladimir Wrangel,Shutterstock

Tortoise Emotions

Many believe that tortoises don’t have any emotions beyond perhaps aggression and fear, but it seems that would be underestimating them.

It’s true that when tortoises are threatened, they retreat inside their shell and might even make a hissing noise. They can also camouflage themselves by blending in with their surroundings.

But tortoises are known to show pleasure when they are around certain people and when being stroked. They will often exhibit a preference for some people over others and will close their eyes and stretch their necks to get the best neck scratches.

It’s safe to say that tortoises are capable of showing emotion. They are slightly more social than other reptiles and are capable of recognizing their handlers.


Tortoises have been known to travel miles to find food storage, and they can also remember training skills after 9 years, which is quite impressive!

Tortoises have strong cognitive skills and have proven that they have excellent long-term memories. Since they are quite slow physically, they were mistakenly believed to be slow minded too. But with these studies and experienced tortoise owners, this opinion has started to change among the general population.

Featured Image Credit: David Pegzlz, Shutterstock

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