Tuesday, November 15, 2011

How Turtles Draw

Art by apes and elephants, with varying degrees of human assistance, has captured the interest of scientists, animal lovers, and the art world. The turtles of Chelonian Connection, an independent laboratory exploring the cognitive abilities of turtles for over thirty years, are the first reptiles to learn to draw. This activity provides a favored behavioral enrichment for the turtles of the lab. The pancake tortoises of the study group first publicly demonstrated the procedure at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry’s 2008 Reptile and Amphibian Show and have participated in the lecture-demonstrations each subsequent year. Other species creating drawings at the lab include eastern and ornate box turtles and a Russian tortoise.

How do the turtles draw? 
  • The human assistant mounts paper on a vertical surface or an easel, and the turtle paddles through the air on the assistant’s hand, pushing with the other feet on available parts of the hand (clarifying the direction of movement) and inclines her head to indicate a marker (usually black or red).
  • The turtle steers in the same way toward the paper and touches it with her beak to indicate the starting point for the first line.
  • The assistant marks the spot.
  • The turtle returns to the starting spot for the first line and each of the following lines and stretches out her neck, drawing her beak across the paper in a straight line or curve.
  • Eastern box turtle Diode pushes with
    considerable pressure against the paper.
  • The assistant, keeping the hand steady, watches the direction and shape of each line and reproduces it with the marker. Only if the indicated line is stretching beyond the turtle’s neck reach does the assistant move the supporting hand in the direction the turtle is indicating.

Subjects, among others, include animals, flowers, houses, people, and abstract designs. The figurative drawings are completed with lines in a seemingly random order; rarely does the assistant or viewer guess the subject until the drawing is nearly done, unless the turtle is looking at a model.

Diode and pancake tortoise Willow pose by two of the
pumpkin faces drawn by them and the other chelonians
of the lab, one feature per individual.

Further discussion of the turtles’ art and other accomplishments will be found in forthcoming book Diode’s Experiment: A Box Turtle Investigates the Human World (working title). Diode’s Experiment tells the story of the thirty years of mutual explorations of mind with these socialized turtles. Who could have known that turtles could show such flexible behaviors and creativity?

Chelonian Connection
Hillsboro, Oregon

Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Our Lecture-Demonstration at the OMSI Reptile and Amphibian Show
A pancake tortoise meets one of many visitors. OMSI, 2009
Photo by Sharon Appleman

Saturday, September 3, 2011, we present our fourth annual lecture-demonstration at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry’s Reptile and Amphibian Show, always on Labor Day Weekend. Other years the show has tallied around 3,000 visitors a day. Our special event is all about the unusual adaptations and accomplishments of the “amazing” East African pancake tortoises in our lab. We (including seven pancake tortoises from the lab) will be in a room near the main exhibit hall between 9:30 and 1:30—Saturday only.
      The computer slide show comes to life when a pancake tortoise meets you, perhaps examining your T-shirt design or jewelry and greets you bolder ones with a turtle-to-turtle greeting: a nose-to-nose push. They will demonstrate their balloon play, mirror play, and procedure in drawing pictures. Some of the better turtle art will be on display.     
      It’s always fun, though tiring, for all of us—the reason we’re limiting our time this year. Come get acquainted while we’re there! There’s more information and a link back to our blog on the OMSI site:  http://www.omsi.edu/reptileshow

Revealing Secrets: Angel Finds a Way
Until I got irritated at reading a whole book at my desktop computer, I was reading a galley version of dolphin researcher Diana Reiss’s forthcoming book, The Dolphin in the Mirror, a very interesting narrative. Her dolphin book, scheduled to appear in stores September 20, is one of a handful for the general reader on long-term studies of captive animals’ cognition that are written by the principal investigator. Thus, like books about Alex the parrot, Koko the gorilla, Kanzi the bonobo, and first signing animal Washoe the chimpanzee, it is a cousin to our Diode’s Experiment. (Funding for behavioral research is tenuous, and a rare study is able to continue for a whole career, so even Diana was not able to study the same dolphins throughout her thirty years of research.) Diana is also featured in the December 2011 issue of Discover magazine.
      Back in the mid eighties, Diana introduced me to her research dolphins (including Circes), John Lilley’s dolphins in adjacent pools, and the set-up for her research, at that time recording and studying dolphin contact calls. Both of us have studied our animals’ vocalizations and mirror self-recognition since the eighties—both with success—but more about the turtles’ sounds and mirror responses another time.
      In her book Reiss notes—and I agree—that if you pay attention to the animals’ interactions, both among themselves and with you, they “often reveal their secrets.” One way they begin this revelation is to show their behavioral flexibility and planning as they try to communicate with a human with whom they’re bonded (and, uh, from whom they want services.) If a lab turtle finds a water dish is, shall we say, “used,” I often see the turtle balanced on the edge of the dish, head bent straight down, staring into the water until I come to change it.
Angel in the Secret Garden
      Here’s a recent example from our lab. Angel, one of Diode’s daughters, found a way to request audio services from the floor. More often, a turtle will steer in hand to the audio equipment or a CD and give it a tap with the beak: the direct approach. This time Angel was walking on the lab floor.
      When I had reorganized books and speakers into a newly-purchased bookcase, I had placed the speakers at either end of the bottom shelf, only three inches above the floor. Angel walked back and forth in front of the long bookcase and stared up at the speaker nearer me each time she passed it, then glanced to my face. After a while I got the idea and put on the next CD.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Hunt in the Secret Garden

A human idea of a natural-roofed shelter. Workshop site at
Graham Oaks Nature Park, Wilsonville, Oregon. Kathleen
Holt, editor, Oregon Humanities; Debra Gwartney; Barry
Lopez; participating writer
 I just attended a wonderful weekend workshop on writing about place with Debra Gwartney and Barry Lopez, sponsored by Portland Metro's parks and Oregon Humanities.
In our brief writing time I chose to write about place on the small scale, specifically, refuges chosen by the Chelonian Connection turtles in their warm afternoons outside, a piece selected to present to the public part of the event. Someone in the audience
suggested I put it on the blog, so here it is.

The Secret Garden in the afternoon.

Hunt in the Secret Garden      
As dusk came on I was down on my knees yet again and wishing I had bought more of the foam garden pads for the Secret Garden. As I’d pointed out at design time, building the top at the four-foot height of the hardware cloth was going make the six by twenty feet of turtle-seeking harder as my time moved on. Where was she? the last to come in for the night. As the turtles were used to the reptile-warm lab room, it would be too cool here in western Oregon to sleep out.
            I knew many of this summer’s hiding places. Small bodies had eased between clumps of the dense bunchgrass I’d planted for tortoise browse and burrowed under the patches of slumped-over lawn grasses, the bottom layers yellowing and decomposing under the unmown weight of slender stems and seeds ripe to fall.
            I slid my probing fingers into a damp under-grass cave I knew, where other box turtles had found shelter, making a warren of muddy depressions. The tips touched something smooth, and the familiar arch fit under the spread of my hand. I smiled: Diode. I wouldn’t need the miner’s light.
            For the second time this summer she had settled here, her shell hidden, head and limbs tucked in under the larger arch of the grasses. Though the bold pattern of her carapace, gold on black, rivaled a zebra’s design for contrast, deep under the parallel stripes and displaced stems of her natural-roof coverlet, she slept in a secure and invisible place.


In July I was invited to lecture for two hours to the animal cognition class and Animal Behavior Group at the University of California-Davis. That made for a quick trip down and back on the scenic Coast Starlight train (arriving and leaving on the same day), an intense but wide-ranging lecture about the cognitive work with the turtles (with lots of photos, plus videos on Diode drawing and mirror self-recognition tests), and a good time with my host and other friends. So two days after I left I was back with the turtles to relieve my sitter
On August 6 at the Willamette Writers Conference, I received the Kay Snow First Prize for nonfiction, a big thrill, plus some cash, which will help with this year's improvements to the lab. The story for which the prize is being awarded adapts key scenes drawn from Part I of my book. Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney were there, too, for Barry received the Willamette Writers lifetime achievement award. 
The "amazing" Chelonian Connection pancake tortoises will again be showing off at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry's annual Amphibian and Reptile Show. Our lecture-demos (with lots of pictures on screen, too, of habitat and adaptations) are Saturday morning of Labor Day Weekend from nine to one. You can meet the tortoises with a nose bump (if they think you're an animal person) and watch them play bang-the-balloon and draw. 
READING OF PRIZE STORY                                               
I'll be reading the Kay Snow Award story at the Blackbird Wine Shop series in NE Portland on Wednesday, February 1, 2012. Check later for details.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

“unwritten language / unnamed places": SLEUTHING THE TURTLE MIND

I can name most of the geographic places where this decades-long adventure of communication with other species spun out from its beginnings near Lake Lemon in southern Indiana: Indiana University, Chicago, Milwaukee, the San Francisco Bay Area, western Oregon.
In Oregon our wild foot-on-the-grass place on a hill with its slice of view looking out toward the Coast Range is named, yes, by a street address on Val Street and a number on a tax map, but for us it’s the home-cum-lab where—with the fifteen turtles—I continue learning ways to understand that unnamed "place" or nonplace rooted somehow in the turtles’ petite bodily brains. It’s called by the amorphous word “mind.”
            By today’s techniques in neuroscience our understandings of the workings of the human brain are pulling out of their infancy; in nonhuman animals, without language, most of the brain’s workings and relations to behavior and thought are still stuck in black-box mode. We do know some relevant things, though. Neuroscientists know that, in rodents at least, exercise and behavioral enrichment increase the weight of neurons and the number of their connections. That makes sense. The socialized turtles of the lab have as many experiences in and out of the lab as possible; and, speaking most generally, their responses and learning suggest plasticity in the brain, even for older animals. (We have to remember that not long ago our species was still thinking that “old dogs can’t learn new tricks”—we older folks can!—and that birds lost their neural plasticity after a defined early time to learn songs.)

The turtles slide their beaks on a vertical surface to make the
drawings they demonstrate at the Oregon Museum of
Science and Industry.

            Our Chelonian Connection lab has looked at turtle cognition from the other—no sacrifice, no cutting—side: communicative behavior and learning.
            For me learning to communicate with a turtle started back in 1969 near that Indiana lake, braking hard for a box turtle crossing in front of my then-husband and me. This is how I’ve put it in book-in-progress Diode’s Experiment: A Box Turtle Investigates the Human World.

Now, forty years older and wiser in the ways of animals and the pressures of our civilization on their very existence, I would have seen him to safety and let wild be wild. But there I was, bending over the fleeing turtle with a cardboard box in my hand. Wanting that gorgeous box turtle felt like raw instinct, not a rational decision. I leaned down and picked him up.
. . . . .
His eyes, a vivid male red, seemed to be sparking with rage, his whole body now a self-contained vessel of wildness seeking a just freedom. He strained toward the other side of the road and the woods beyond, the strength of his muscles signaling his desperation to escape. With his long neck stretched taut toward the trees, he struggled on—so bold, so strong—as he tried to evade my grasp by pushing his feet against my hands. I would not be deterred; he was strong, but I was stronger. I held tight. What I didn’t know then was that his willful shoving against my hand and paddling in the air toward the woods would be the key to our learning to understand each other.

            What we noticed right away was that this turtle was curious; his curiosity calmed him and pushed his body to control us humans in his intent to examine everything.

. . . . .
            As days went by, Terry quickly lost his fury, but not his determination to go where he wanted to go whenever I picked him up. By himself, with four feet to the floor, he could hardly see the most interesting things: our strange possessions—books, instruments, pictures, clothes—and what was going on outside the window: all scaled to human height. His strong visual and kinesthetic cues gave me instructions for his flight of hand, and I, becoming curious about his aerial explorations, followed them.
            He led with his head, neck stretched out like the lead goose in flight, straight on till morning or veering to the side for the flock behind him—in this case, just me. Sometimes he would look up or down, which he emphasized by stretching his front or back legs tall, tilting his body one way or the other; and I would move my hand for the change in elevation.
This pancake tortoise steers down.

            His feet worked the kinesthetic engine. He pushed his back feet against my hand—right foot to go left, left foot to go right, like paddling a canoe. I was the canoe, and the strength of his strokes moved my feet to his bidding.

While he pushed with his back feet, his front feet echoed the motion as he paddled in the air. The pattern was the same: right foot to go left, left foot to go right. To go straight ahead he pushed and paddled with pairs of front feet or back feet or all limbs at once. Sometimes, to feel his actions more precisely, I held my free hand in front of him so he could grasp it with his front legs, making his pivoting unmistakable. 

Straight ahead!

            With practice it became easier for me to interpret his movements. As I caught on, like a horse in training learning to respond to a bit of pressure here, a bit of pressure there, his steering became more subtle. With my human hubris dropping away, I was the horse, the elephant, the Hogwarts broomstick. He was the rider, the mahout, the boy wizard.

            That was only the beginning: a turtle’s natural response refined to communicate his wishes to me and my learning to interpret it. How frustrating it must be to captive turtles to be held tight when they are struggling to go somewhere of their own choosing!
            Years later, we continue to learn from each other, for we have built a variety of more precise means of communication on top of that foundation. Yielding power leads to an interspecies bond stronger than food to the mouth, and other researchers in interspecies communication say too what I have learned: that building a bond is essential to true communication and motivation to learn.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Year of the Turtle and World Turtle Day

The Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC) coalition has designated 2011 the YEAR OF THE TURTLE. Today, still May 23 at this writing, is WORLD TURTLE DAY!

Like other folks, those of us in behavioral research with captive animals can get too comfortable with our own role and, in our busy lives, not find time to work for species protection in the wild. Our Chelonian Connection lab, though, is starting to work in that direction. Recently we did a training for volunteers at our local wetland preserve at Jackson Bottom, and the Chelonian Connection lab has just been accepted into the PARC coalition, joining wildlife, veterinary, and reptile conservation organizations worldwide in the year's emphasis on turtle conservation, starting with public awareness.

        PARC asks, “Why Turtles, and Why Now?”

Their answers are alarming.

“Turtles are disappearing from the planet faster than any other group of animal. Today, nearly 50% of turtle species are identified as threatened with extinction. However, it's not too late for our turtle heritage to be salvaged. The United States has more endemic turtle species than anywhere on Earth; a turtle biodiversity hotspot. Our careful stewardship can preserve the rare species and keep 'common species common.'

“Throughout the year, we will be raising awareness of the issues surrounding turtles through press releases, newsletters, photo contests, and related events. We believe that citizens, natural resource managers, scientists, and the pet and food and related industries can work together to address issues and to help ensure long-term survival of turtle species and populations.”

Lonesome George, last of his species
The PARC web site and newsletter are full of interesting and useful features. One intriguing game, just up for World Turtle Day, is a set of digital flip cards of the 25 most threatened turtle species, including the Galapagos Islands’ famous tortoise, Lonesome George, and a Vietnamese water turtle, both the last of their kinds. Click the swaying photos and operate the circular arrows, flipping the cards over to learn a bit about the animal. Then send it to every kid (of every age) that you know.

There’s lots more: a photo contest, newsletters, a video, opportunities to contribute writing, reports and info about the reasons turtles are in such danger, info on head starting (as is done in western Oregon and Washington with great success for the western pond turtle—more on that sometime), other action, mapping, meetings, a turtle screensaver, monthly turtle calendars, and so on—a nice mix of valuable information and intriguing, fun reasons to take a look.

It’s all here: http://parcplace.org/news-a-events/year-of-the-turtle.html

And don’t miss the flip cards in the TiltViewer at http://parcplace.org/YOT_flip_cards/index.html  

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

“Reptile, Turtle, Taps a Poem”: A Literary Aside

The turtle in the illustration is a male ornate box turtle, father of five of the turtles in our bale of turtles in the Chelonian Connection lab. Yes, “bale” is the collective noun for a bunch of turtles, though it’s hard to imagine their being wrapped together like a bale of hay.

The poem associated with the picture, like most of my writing, has a turtle topic. (A note to anyone who writes prose, whether it’s about turtles or anything else: Writing poetry, with its concentration, imagery, sound relationships, and attention to rhythm, can improve your prose writing.)
Early in the year BluePrintReview, an established online literary journal coming out of Germany, put out a call for collaborative works including verbal and visual media: “Synergetic Transformations.” I was intrigued, for the poem "Haunted Garden" was already completed as a collaborative work with one of my students; the theme was a natural, and I sent it in, along with an illustration (above) and notes about the ancient form and the way we’d adapted it.
One of our Last Monday Poetry events, for which I’m a codirector, had been an introduction to the Japanese form renga (similar to renku) by Brad Wolthers. The workshop participants wrote a round of stanzas, recreating renga as the collaborative party game it has been for centuries, leading the next week to an e-mail renga with eighteen participants, then to our “Haunted Garden,” written in the trade-off process: three lines in the voice of a turtle, two lines in response.
Our collaboration was accepted. Dorothee Lang, BluePrintReview editor, soon learned that two pairs of collaborators accepted for the issue lived in the Portland, Oregon, metro area and that poet John Sibley Williams, who recently presented at Last Monday Poetry, was already a friend; she suggested entries on our blogs. If, before our work was accepted, we’d discussed BluePrintReview, we wouldn't have been so surprised when we discovered we four were about to be published in the same journal, the same issue, in far-off Germany. The explanation? Our ideas to submit came from the same source: a mutual friend, practitioner of poetry and multiple arts Anatoly Molotkov, who kindly posted the journal information on Facebook.
The “Haunted Garden” collaboration is online now at www.blueprintreview.de, a happy resident in a beautiful issue. Here is the poem’s ending, suitable for a blue-sky day in an Oregon spring, bright with cherry blossoms and, yes, the masses of white bell-like blooms sprawling out in the sun from our Pieri japonica, outside the turtles’ garden window.

Season of fear leaves.
Silent shoots sign early spring,
garden smiles again.

Violas, pieri survive.
Turtle smiles, taps his poem.

Thanks to A. Molotkov for sharing the journal information; Brad Wolthers, whose renga, haiku, and other poems in the Japanese tradition are published in several books; and to Margaret Chula, much-honored Portland poet and specialist in Japanese poetry, who influenced my notes by identifying the ways in which our hybrid style differed from the strict practice of renga and renku.

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.