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


  1. Call me narrow minded, but using a turtle as a drawing instrument looks downright mean. Turtles are really independent animals. You can pick one up and head him in another direction so he wonn't crawl across a highway...and he'll turn around and lumber back into danger. Now painting with snakes. That would be interesting artwork.

  2. Hello, Barb, I took a look at your blog and liked it, especially your recreations of pioneer life. You're absolutely right about turtles' independence. The example of a road rescue is a good one. If you pick them up off the road and they're bold enough to stick their heads and limbs out from the get-go, they canoe desperately with their legs and/or push against your hand, steering and stretching their necks out in the direction they were walking. That's how I learned that, dropping human hubris, I could let a turtle take the initiative and steer where he wanted to go. It's like being the horse, with the turtle holding the reins and the "horse" learning to respond to the rider's kinesthetic cues, enabling the rider's transport in the rider's chosen direction. It gives the turtle control, which is mighty scarce for most captive turtles, leads to a bond (necessary for developing any kind of communication)and motivation to communicate their wishes, hence learning and activities like drawing and active play--all part of their behavioral enrichment. The drawing is an extension of their independence. I don't tell the whole history here: it takes a whole chapter in my book-in-progress, but the turtles make the choices at every step: among them, steering to the paper, pushing their beaks across the page, then waiting quietly in my hand for me to trace over the latest line before their muscles surge toward the paper again. (Check the active verbs in the blog.) It's a favorite activity; they would all choose to draw every day if there were enough of my time to go around. If there's a tool/instrument involved, it's not the turtle; it's the human enabling the will of the turtle by transport and providing a platform, moving only when the length of a line exceeds the distance he can stretch his neck and push his body. You're right: if it were the other way around, the human pushing the turtle, it would be mean. But I rarely have a clue as to what the drawing will be until it is nearly finished. It's all up to the turtle, again, an expression of his independence. I laughed, imagining trying to draw with a snake as an unwilling tool. Would a snake be interested in drawing the way the turtles do? I have no idea, but I do know it takes relinquishing some power to the animal and establishing trust and a bond for any such thing to happen.

  3. Ever thought of giving them an "Etch-a-Sketch"?

  4. Thanks for the suggestion! We haven't tried the Etch-a-Sketch. In fact, I've never used one, so I don't know how a turtle would use it. I'll have to check it out. How do you think it might work for a turtle? / What I would love to have is a computer screen/tablet/whatever that responds to a turtle's keratinous beak--like a fingernail--or a wooden or plastic non-electronic stylus. It would have to save from the screen or move it into a drawing program. That would be more accurate for recording the turtle's intent by eliminating the human's skill or lack of skill or interpretation of the line. I know it's possible to make such a screen, but, though I've had a scientific instrumentation course, I'm just not a builder type--nor would it fit into my time budget. Anyone who knows of such screens available to buy (reasonably!), I'd to hear about it! Etch-a-Sketch I know we can afford, custom electronics probably not. Some years ago we had a set of thin foam sheets on which the turtles impressed lines with their beaks, and I printed the results on cards. Two designs have survived. I think that would make a whole post. Recently I found similar foam in an art store, so we're about ready to try it again.

    1. I heartfully share your desire to give the turtles more free range without full assistance.

      I just remembered that with Etch-a-sketch you have to turn the knobs. However, that led to the remembrance of when I was young I also had a flat pad that was a plastic sheet over some black waxy material (graphite?) and I would draw on the plastic whatever I wanted and then later lift the plastic and it would erase, ready for another drawing.

      I checked with Toys-R-Us and saw a modernized version of this here:


      "With Magic Sketch you can Doodle, Draw and Sketch! It has a liquid crystal screen that writes just like pen on paper and erases with the touch of a button. See-through screen makes it easy for tracing. Draws in rainbow colors for beautiful pieces of art."

      I don't know if the provided stylus is simply a stick. I tried to submit a question but it is not go through for some reason.

      If you scroll down there are some other interesting doodle pads.

    2. The device with the plastic sheet and the waxy stuff is what got Diode interested in drawing in the first place. She steered to it and moved her beak over the plastic when she saw me making marks on it. It turned out that the lines didn't last long, and we turned to dipping beaks in beet juice for each line, which is more directly from the turtle but is messy and, on paper, fades over time.

  5. The other medium that comes to mind - do you remember when you did fingerpainting? It was a thick coating of some kind of colored wet medium and we would draw in it using our fingers. Do you remember that?


  6. I do remember finger painting. There's a somewhat famous turtle who, with a canvas prepared with a background and an artist assistant who chose dollops of paint to put on it, walked and slid through it a number times (with places and timing decided by the artist). The paintings are beautiful and hang in many homes and businesses all over the country.
    The down side: The artist worked with what were labeled nontoxic paints, but eventually the turtle got liver damage and was retired from painting. I'm sure the paints the artist selected were nontoxic as used by children--she was careful--but small turtles have different tolerances, and paint on the face would potentially be more problematic than walking through it. And, of course, that approach is not one that gives the turtle artistic choices.
    I suppose that a small amount of stroking with the front feet with, say, poster paint wouldn't be harmful, though there's no way to be sure; but the turtle walking through thick paint many times for dozens of paintings got a large dose.

  7. "Appreciative Customers," I looked at the Boogie Board and asked about other screens. They wouldn't work with a beak. Too bad.
    Keep sending ideas!