Are Turtles Smart?

Are Turtles Smart
Written by Daniel Paul

Do you remember the story of a hare and a tortoise? Or you have ever wondered why the most senior and genius fellow in any animals animation movie is always a turtle

Well, rather it is a turtle or a tortoise, we can now agree on a common trait, i.e., WITS. However, many turtle pet owners ask us if their pet is actually intelligent enough to correlate with their other furry fellows.

So, let us discuss all about the intelligence level of this long-living creature. Also, if its intelligence actually enhances over time.

 Yes, turtles are pretty smart in the reptilian world. However, their intelligence level is lower than that of mammals, e.g., dogs, cats, etc.

The level of intelligence in turtles varies a lot depending on sup species, age, and environment. A turtle living in a highly competitive environment learns much more quickly than living a secluded life. Moreover, the turtles living among humans as pets have better intelligence for human interactions than the wild ones.

Types Of Turtle Intelligence:

Let us talk about the types of intelligence turtles can exhibit, especially our pet turtles:

Intelligence For Safety:

Like most other animals, Turtles have instincts to protect themselves from foreign invader and their predators.

Not only like the most common instinct, but turtles are also super intelligent in protecting themselves. Once they smell the danger, they retract into their hard shells by instinct.

Moreover, they try to camouflage in the mud and rocks to stay away from the eyes of predators. This type of intelligence is not only instinctual or cumulative turtle intelligence as passed from ancestors that which organism can be harmful. But also, turtles learn it with their experience. Once an object or a route hurts them, they will never try it twice.

Just like this, aquatic turtles know which time is best to come to the surface and get food. They have become more nocturnal creatures that know their predators are not present in the night time. All this collectively affects the turtle’s survival in the food web.

Communication Intelligence:

Communication With Humans:

Turtles are famous for living in isolation. They are not as social as rabbits and other animals loving to live in a group. Well, may be they have learned to enjoy their own company (chuckles). Anyways, this behavior made humans think that isolated animals are not suitable pets, as they have no tolerance for other creatures around them.

Well, that might not be the case. After two and half years of continuous significant interaction with my pet turtle, it now not only recognizes me but also changes its facial expression in the most adorable way.

And that is not only my case. Multiple pet owners have reported that their turtle friend responds to their calls, gets excited when they come, and shows their love and gratitude. Moreover, they always come to the same feeding spot for their food as their dining area.

However, that should not make you think that this hardcore creature loves cuddles!

Communication With Their Mates:

Also, turtles communicate with their mates and respond to changes in the environment. However, their voices are usually too low for human ears. Sometimes, turtles seem to make noise. This is their kind of communication with their human owner or other turtles.

To know more about turtles’ voices and noises, you may check our article on DO TURTLES MAKE NOISE?

Spatial Intelligence:

Only the higher species have spatial sense. Spatial sense means the organism recognizes the space around itself and determines its safety profile and other factors. Spatial sense is one of the highest levels of intelligence in any organism that determine its safety.

To your surprise, turtles have a high spatial intelligence which other reptiles lack. Turtles can not only recognize the depths and protect themselves but also can consider the shape.

However, this kind of intelligence is not very common in aquatic turtles as they have never experienced falls. However, they can most probably recognize sharp pointed objects.

When it comes to terrestrial pet turtles, they show exceptional spatial sense. These turtles can easily live with you in a house full of furniture that offers hurdles in their locomotion. Spatial intelligence is pretty evident in box turtles, who also have a great memory in this regard.

This kind of intelligence is another leading factor in determining the animal’s behavior as a pet.

Problem Solving Intelligence:

Turtles have high problem solving intelligence. They can learn from their past experience. It is more like a try and learns the type of ability. Various studies have proven that turtles make a lot of mistakes, but these mistakes are seldom repeated. This means they try one thing, see the effect, and store it in their memory, whether good or bad.

It is seen that turtles love to try new solutions. Whenever a thing does not work for them, they are not like “Try try again, till you succeed,” but more like “Try better again, so you do not fail.” This behavior is fascinating and also opens new horizons of learning and experience for humans too.

Should I show you an exciting way to play with your pet and test its intelligence? Arrange a maze for it! You will be surprised to see that it will be difficult for it to cross it at first. May be it takes hours, depending on the difficulty and complexity. However, with time it will learn where the hurdle is and will never move to that again. Even after a few tries, it will successfully start coming out of it quickly without any hindrance!


There can be other kinds of intelligence that come along with instincts. These types of intelligence help the turtle to find food and shelter and protect themselves from predators.

It is more like these things are coded in their genes, much like that of birds and mammals. For example, just like climatic change makes birds migrate to far-off places, turtles can migrate too.

Whenever aquatic turtles sense danger, food, or potential mate scarcity, they may travel miles away from their original place. Moreover, they also have a sharp memory of their origin and can return to it even after years.

Turtles leave a unique mark on the place where they are born and consider it their safest spot on the earth. They usually try to return to it in case of great danger to protect their life.

In fact, this behavior helped turtles increase their survival rate a lot. It is because mother turtles lay their eggs in the safest place, in groups, and hide spots that are difficult to recognize. Therefore, a turtle has enough intelligence to travel hundreds and thousands of miles to return to its safe spot without any mistake.

How Intelligent Turtles Are?

Turtles are pretty smart in the reptilian world. However, their intelligence cannot be compared to that of birds and mammals. You may say turtles are intelligent in different aspects. Let us debunk some prevalent myths here.

Myth 1:

Turtles are dumb as compared to birds and mammals!

Mammals and birds are at the highest level of intelligence. However, to your surprise, we can correlate the turtle’s brain with that of a bird. The significant difference lies in the size of the cerebral hemisphere.

In turtles, the cerebral hemisphere is not well developed. This is a highly convulsant part of the brain that is primarily liked to reasoning and cognitive processes. Therefore, turtles usually cannot develop this skill that is highly efficient in other higher kingdoms.

However, that does not make them dumb in front of them. Like we said before, turtles have different intelligence than birds and mammals.

Myth 2:

Turtles have smaller brains!

It is the most popular myth that turtles are dumb as they have much smaller brains than their bodies. However, let us make things logical here.

If we subtract the shell’s weight from that of the living body weight of the turtle, we will have the actual weight of the turtle. Now, for this living body, a tiny brain also functions really well.

So, now you see, turtles do not have a smaller brain. In fact, their actual weight is much lesser than the weight you see.

Myth 3:

Turtles only live on survival mode!

Well, that is only one side of the turtle’s intelligence story. In fact, every living organism lives on the survival mode. Turtles have multiple other kinds and levels of intelligence. They learn from their experiences, make the memory, and have significant observations.

For example, one of the very popular and intelligent turtle species, i.e., Wood Turtle, has a high brain to weight ratio. Their brains are so large that their intelligence is comparable to those of very active rats(mammals).

Wood turtles are popular among psychologists for their exceptional intelligence, learning experiences, memory, and observation. Therefore, they have also been used for multiple tests.

Myth 4:

Old Turtles are more intelligent than young ones!

So, I am going to debunk your strongest myth.

Zoologists and herpetologists, after multiple studies, proved that younger turtles are much more active and intelligent. By multiple sets of tests and experiences, they have demonstrated that young turtles have much sharper memory and learn things quickly.

Well, now you may question the intellect of Master Oogway in Kung fu Panda (chuckles).

Myth 5:

All turtles have the same level of intelligence:

No, a turtle’s intelligence varies a lot from species to species. This also affects their behavior as pets. For example, Wood turtles and North American Turtles have intelligence comparable to lower mammals.

Even North American Turtles can learn complex mazes quickly, and surprisingly the behavior is similar or sometimes quicker than that of rats. It depicts their problem solving skills and high long term as well as short term memory.

Species that are larger in size usually have a high brain to mass ratio. This physiological change helps these giant turtles to have made really long term memory. This helps them be quicker and more innovative in their daily activities and also protect themselves better.

Can Turtles Be Trained?

I must not say easily. But, yes with you can train your turtle in lesser time than for any other reptilian pet.

You do not need any specific gadget or professional assistance, just perseverance and continuous interaction with your pet turtle. You can train your turtle to respond to your calls. In fact, most of the turtles recognize their name, understand their owners timings especially the food one, and be thankful to them.

And above all, you can also Potty Train Your Turtle!

Your turtle may also get habitual to the medical check-ups and grooming sessions. Even some turtles start enjoying it, or may be they are too lazy to resist. Some of the turtles voluntarily participate in nail clippings and blood withdrawal. My turtle can recognize the crate that I use to take it to the vet and gets in it itself.

Also, you may be transcribed in your turtle’s memory as the safest person who provides them food and shelter. In this way, they will recognize you quickly. However, for this, you need to interact with your turtle and feed it yourself. However, do not try to cuddle them when you are new to them. They will consider it as a danger and come in defensive mode against you.

However, it would be best not to compare your turtle’s trainining and learning timing with that of your pet dog, cat, or any other bird. They are not as quick as them in learning new things. However, they do! Believe me and give it a full try.

Positive Reinforcement Is The Key!

You know you can train any animal in two ways; by punishing or by praising. We call it negative and Positive Reinforcement, respectively. However, when it comes to turtles, the best suit is positive Reinforcement.

You must have observed until now from your experience and literature that all the pet tortoises and turtles are food beggers! They love food and even ask for it when they are just fed. So, you may use their favorite snack to motivate them to behave as you wish. In this way, your turtle will be lured to behave in an excellent way to get his favorite incentive.


The turtles are long-lived, charming, and intelligent pets. Sometimes they are called too dumb to be successful pets. However, it is only said by some ruthless and careless pet owners who have no time to spend with their pets.

You see, I have described in the light of my own experience and scientific pieces of evidence that turtles have a high level of intelligence. Moreover, they are intelligent in their way. You must understand that they are a reptile which usually has low intelligence and primarily rely on their survival instincts.

So, it would be best to spend time with your turtle to learn a lot more about their specific behaviors. Believe me; every turtle is different. And each of them shows some new behaviors that others do not. Obviously, you should not cuddle and play with them like a dog or cat, but they are a lot more interesting. Every day you will discover new behaviours and unusual details about your pet. And when they start recognizing you as their owner and get excited when you come, there is nothing happier than that.

So, do not compare your turtle with other pets. They are exceptional in their way. So, understand them and treat them accordingly.

I hope this article cleared all your doubts related to the turtle’s intelligence. In case of any further queries, you may drop down the comment or contact us. We would be happy to help.