Just because they are cold-blooded, doesn’t mean that reptiles are any less intelligent than their warm-blooded counterparts. As a matter of fact, you could say that they are a real “smart asp”. However, in the past, as few scientists studied the intelligence of mammals and birds, there were even less scientists that studied reptiles. Those that did, were often left unimpressed. It wasn’t until recently that scientists began to relook at the studies done on cold-blooded creatures. What behaviourists and neuroscientists found was that they were testing the animals the wrong way, and this is why we previously thought reptiles to be more instinctual than intelligent.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s tests done on reptiles had serious design flaws – they were giving reptiles tests meant for animals such as mice and rats. For example, some researchers had snakes attempt to run a maze. Not only was the room too cool and created a metabolic challenge, snakes don’t run mazes, they tend to want to circle the edge of a test looking for a way out. In 1999, a neuroscientist named David Holtzman realised that they had been testing the snakes wrong. He realised that snakes, with their well developed vomeronasal or Jacobson’s organ, would recognise the researchers and this could alter the outcome. (Its this organ that also allows a reptile to uncannily recognise their owners and most frequent handlers). Dr. Holtzman used escaping the test as the motivation for the animal rather than food, as the snakes would use their vomeronasal organ rather than their memory to succeed in the test. New trials have been done on tortoises, monitor lizards and even anoles, using various forms of stimuli and always remembering the unique limitations to a reptiles body.
Do reptiles feel love?
An even bigger question to “Are reptiles smart” is “Do reptiles feel love”? This is a unique question as it leaves the realm of the IQ (Intelligence Quotient) and instead relies on the EQ (Emotional Quotient) of the animal. We believe that animals that are highly social like dogs and birds, have a high EQ. Reptiles are solitary beings, generally only coming together to mate. Rarely do they show a maternal instinct, baby snakes who are delivered ovoviviparous, or viviparous (meaning live birth) are born completely ready for life – and very quickly learn to run away from their mum who may eat them! There are exceptions, such as the crocodile who have amazing maternal instincts – and why is still being researched. There is a hypothesis that says as crocodiles learn fast, they may have learned that caring for their offspring aids in their survival. The study of EQ among animals is relatively new, and ongoing, so there are many questions without answers.
In human neuroscience, there is the study about a part of the brain called the “neocortex”. The neocortex is part of the cerebral cortex (the outer layer of neural tissue) in our brain. The neocortex is responsible for a large part of our cognitive functions such as sleep, memory and learning. What is very interesting that in the evolution of our brain, we developed a better neocortex than the reptiles (called a dorsal cortex). As a matter of fact, some of our oldest and most instinctive brain responses such as our heartbeat and breathing take place in our “reptile brain” that was developed over 100 million years ago (and lives in our brain stem). Reptiles however, have more brain cells than humans, and may be able to grow them limitlessly. However, these limitations doesn’t mean that a reptile isn’t intelligent. We simply cannot underestimate the ability of “the lizard brain”. We just have to create the right tests in the right environment. It may also mean that we will have to redefine what “smart” actually is.