Monday, December 27, 2010

What Are Chelonians, and What Is This All About?

Chelonians are TURTLES, those reptiles with shells, just with a fancier word. (You can use the same word to refer to turtles, as in our lab name, "Chelonian Connection.")

So welcome to our brand new turtle blog! It will introduce our 30-plus years of surprises working with socialized turtles in the Chelonian Connection cognitive lab, now near Portland, Oregon.

Diode thanks you for coming.

What's going to be in it? Look for photos, stories, background, updates on the Ts' doings and accomplishments, samples from our book-in-progress, Diode's Experiment: A Box Turtle Investigates the Human World, and updates on the book, other publications, and appearances. Look too for information about the species that make up most of our study group: North American box turtles (Terrapena carolina and T. ornata) and the strangely flat and fast African pancake tortoises (Malacochersus tornieri).

These turtles have shown their stuff, including balloon play and animal art, at library and class demonstrations and invited lecture/demonstrations at San Francisco State University, the Oakland Museum, and our popular pancake tortoise showcase featured each year at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). We're on the leading edge of exploring cognition from the behavioral side in these understudied animals. Turtles, it turns out, have more cognitive potential than anybody--including me--would ever have dreamed.

Here's a quick intro to Diode, pictured above and--hardly visible--the dark blob in my hands in our profile picture (taken by Dr. Jane Steig Parsons but squeezed down by me). Diode is an eastern box turtle, called "Grandma" when first seen; She's been with me since 1971. She's the mother of six of the turtles in the group. (How old is she? Probably over 70.)

Diode is the hero of the book and of the blog. In 1979, by her charade showing me she understood classifications of objects, she jump-started the research and set me on a path away from teaching music lit in universities and back to grad school in animal behavior and related fields.

If you'd like a quick catch-up on the turtle project, e-mail me and I'll put you on the list for current issues and the several back issues of the Chelonian Connection Newsletter, which the blog will eventually replace.


  1. It is revelatory that turtles seek aesthetic sensation. There is a "Scale of Sensations", sensations being particles. Sexing and Eating are near the bottom of the scale of activities that provide sensation. Aesthetics (colors, line, form, grace of movement, etc) is at the top of the scale and is associated with Creating and in the mind of the creator and any experiencers.

    An interesting question would be does the turtle create beautiful line and form for solely its own sensational experience or it is also wanting to impress the assistant [wanting to be known], commanding the assistant from a distance to know (and admire) the effects it is creating?

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful responses to this and other posts.
    You should have seen the male ornate box turtle the night I first took him out to watch a full moon. He stared at it from my stable hand for minutes and breathed deeply. I could tell that from the way his forearms moved in and out, which doesn't happen under other circumstances; and he kept producing his glottal clicks, which over the years have been connected with pleasurable activities.
    The same deep breathing happens with others when they are staring at something that I would (also) consider beautiful, e.g., sunsets, some paintings . . .
    So, yes, the turtle has behavioral responses to aesthetic experience. From my observations I'm positing that they also experience pleasure from their own creative work and want to impress me and others.
    Is the "Scale of Sensations" from your work? If not, do you have citations? It would be interesting to know how the scale was devised.