Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Are Socialized Turtles Capable of Play?

Look at this photo of a Chelonian Connection tortoise and see what you think. Now animate it with the tortoise on a strong forward trajectory.

Here, pancake tortoise Wafford is pushing against my hands and canoeing forward to smack the hanging balloon. Sometimes the turtles turn themselves turtle and hit it upside down; sometimes they thrust out their front feet and hit it, but they don’t get the timing right every time. Usually they pivot after they’ve hit the balloon, steering me into a turn. Then they come at it from the other direction—over and over. The games tend to go on until the balloon gets old and unresponsive. The turtles then go on to other things, such as hitting the wind chimes with the same techniques: beak, foot, and—a new technique for these hard surfaces—the flat of the plastron, the bottom part of the shell—to take the impact.

Last year Wafford’s brother Toot, the youngest, slimmest, and most agile of the turtles, demonstrated the game for an audience at OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry). In that case, we tied the string to the ceiling struts. That works, too, and without holes in the museum.

As our lab no longer has an open doorway, but rather a temporary door to separate the room from the cooler part of the building, the new game is to try to hit a balloon attached to the moving ceiling fan. That wild balloon, careening every which way as soon as it’s hit, is almost as likely to bounce back and hit the turtle—or me—as for the turtle to connect with it. The fan, even on the low setting, is faster than most fans, and the game is much more difficult. (However, you may try this at home.)

In a later post, we’ll show other lab photos of what we can only term turtle play, including Wafford’s father’s self-powered ride on a low cart, and introduce you to Pigface, a Nile soft-shelled turtle, whose water play with a ball has been documented by Gordon M. Burkhardt of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. 

Note: “Turtle” equals “chelonian” as the most general word for all of the shelled reptiles, as well, at a more specific level, for aquatic turtles, semiaquatic turtles, and sea turtles. “Tortoise” is used for the turtle species adapted to arid conditions.

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