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