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.