We have two red-footed tortoises. You might think that tortoises are not the brightest of animals but I beg to differ. Over the years the behavior that I’ve seen indicates that they might be quite clever.
The tortoises’ home is a large aquarium. Inside there are two stone water dishes and a stone food dish. In addition there are two hollow log shaped wood objects. These pieces of wood are easily movable by the tortoises. I believe that they use these movable objects in attempt to communicate with us.
For example, I tried an early experiment where I placed a computer monitor that played video next to the aquarium. I thought it might be entertaining to them. What did the tortoises do? They erected a barrier that was obviously meant to block the view of the computer. I suspect that the computer and monitor also produced sound that might have irritated them. As soon as I turned off the computer and monitor they took down their barrier.
There have been many other examples of the tortoises doing things that appear to be attempts to get our attention and to change our behavior. They have ways to indicate that they want fresh water or fresh food, and that they wish to go out into the yard. They also make a variety of sounds by moving things and using their mouths.
Sometimes at night I check on them and they are both awake and alert in the dark. What are they thinking, sitting in the dark? Do they have a mental life? Can they entertain themselves? Can they communicate with each other?
Tortoises live for many years compared to other animals. Do they learn, develop culture, and mental skills?
I’d like to imagine that they have a rich intellectual tradition and that they are having learned discussions late at night.
Who knows, maybe tortoises could teach us a thing or two.