The Cognitive Reptile 8

Approximately one year ago my blood pressure shot through the roof and my brain went into overdrive as I listened to a well-respected herpetoculturist state the below

‘Snakes were unlikely to recognize their handlers.’

This is far from what I have experienced in my decade plus in the herpetoculture industry. Laurence M. Klauber noted that his collection of rattlesnakes might have recognized him as evidenced when colleagues or others came into the area where he kept them and the snakes would sound off. However, when he was alone they wouldn’t sound off. I have heard many stories of this same behavior and also experienced this when I owned rattlesnakes.

Intelligence vs. Cognition in Reptiles

Now at first I wanted to respond but I held back as I had nothing more than personal experiences to base my opinions on. I was just starting to get my name out there and well when you’re in that kind of position you don’t want to tick people off. Later I would come to realize this particular individual takes open discussions very personally. Fast forward one year, many meetings with colleagues, and months worth of reading and comparing notes with numerous scientists and now I have the data to back up my claims. My colleague Melissa Coakley and I are currently working on an in-depth treatise of reptile cognition. What you are about to read is a very basic treatment of what I have come to learn; not to mention the fact that I can now write in the proper terminology which should be used in such pieces.
One word though through the show I was referring to which sparked this piece was one I would later learn was incorrect to use when referring to animals


As it turns out, science doesn’t use the word intelligence to describe how animals interact with their environment or figure things out as it were. Scientists use the word


which means roughly the acquisition of knowledge or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding it.
The reason this is coming out now is that a co-worker over hearing my snide remark about why I choose to deal with reptiles rather than humans thought it was necessary to comment. My co-worker stated broadly that reptile behavior was completely predictable. I didn’t react right away but I tried to explain and correct their statement; to no avail I might add. I invite any and all intelligently written comments to this piece as it is somewhat controversial even today.

The Animal Mind

We as a species would be remiss to in thinking that we could ever fully understand the animal mind as we are still ignorant of our own motivations or at least those outside of our instinctual drives of procreation and feeding. When the general public speaks of intelligence they are speaking in broad terms of reasoning or the ability to solve a specific task which is associated with their way of life. Therein lay the fallacy of the argument that animals are not, nor can they be ‘intelligent’. Marc Bekoff is a great author on this subject, and I have included some of his works in the The Reptile & Invertebrate Library. It is in some cases a matter of semantics to some but to error on the safer side I will from this point forward be using the term cognition. Even within science there are strong arguments on both sides of whether or not a non-human species can be cognitive. Albert Einstein was quoted as saying

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”


That can be taken many ways but to this piece it refers to we cannot judge an animal mind by our own experiences.
Some would say that verbal communication is a sign of cognition. I would argue that because an animal cannot verbally express itself in terms that we can understand doesn’t mean that the animal doesn’t possess a capability of communication. Does this in itself make the animal cognizant? All animals possess the means of signaling one another to my knowledge, our species may not be able to interpret them but they are communicating on some level are they not?

Another argument that is often stated to establish whether or not an animal is cognizant or not is that of is the animal self-aware? While potentially a valid argument, it begs another question. If said animal is self-aware unless we can communicate or somehow extrapolate data from an accurate testing model that everyone could agree upon then we are at a loss to establish cognition. This is true when it comes to animals as we as a different species cannot hope to discover the experience of what its like to be that animal and what it is to be self-aware as that animal.

Questions & Answers

With so many questions and not so many answers that are publicly known it is indeed a convoluted path to take to establish cognition. There are examples of cognition throughout the reptile world. For example a monitor lizard who for whatever reason finds itself faced with an object that it’s never encountered before becomes aware that there is food within it and after accessing the food does so faster and faster each time. Why does a snake choose one ambush path rather than another in the wild? Is this not evidence that it understands that the food source is scarce? Why will some sit and wait predators allow smaller prey to go past and then when the most cost-effective (weight) comes it will then consume that one? There are numerous stories from keepers of snakes not allowing anyone to handle with ease except for one particular person. This is a very broad base and in the upcoming treatise on the subject Melissa and I will go very in-depth and provide concrete examples of what we have learned.
In conclusion, this is meant to have you look at your reptiles behavior as not just programmed simple responses to external stimuli. Look at the reptile no matter the brain size which has been discussed as well; brain size is actually no accurate measure of any species cognitive capabilities. Reptiles are cognitive and thinking. They are not just a blob of flesh and bone moving through the world on instinct.

Do they have emotions as we experience? That remains for us to discover. What are your thoughts? Is that constantly escaping Tegu just a dumb lizard? How about the snake that seems to know you? Do we really have The Cognitive Reptile?

8 thoughts on “The Cognitive Reptile

  • John F Taylor Post author

    Alex, I would be happy and honored to assist in anyway I can. I have sent an email to the address provided and removed it from the original comment so as to prevent you from Spam. Thanks for dropping by the site.

  • Alex Dorman

    It has been hard, but I believe I have finally found someone to consult with. I am a psychology undergrad at a College in Ohio that requires their senior students to conduct research and produce a cohesive lab report before graduating, and I have been given the broad go ahead to test reptile cognition. I was wondering if you would be able to contact me via email so that I could share some ideas I have with you and get some feedback. I would have access to modest funding and be heavily supervised throughout the process. I am very experienced with reptile care and ownership. Please respond at your leisure and if anything keep up the good work!

  • John F Taylor Post author

    Thank you very much Debbie, Melissa and I are in the process of working out the details and outlining the entire piece. We could write for years on the subject and only scratch the surface but we hope to share a larger understanding of what it means to be a reptile and show that they really are thinking creatures and not just reactionary as so many believe them to be. Thanks again for taking the time to read my work, it’s when people such as you let us know we are being heard that makes what we do worth it.

  • Sharon Weber

    I so much appreciate your efforts in this area. I have long felt that humans have not given credit to the abilities of many animals. I have had certain types of fish, ciclids, that recognise there is a stranger in the room.Over the years that I have had reptiles, I have found that, with time, they do seem to recognise and respond to me – as in coming over to me as soon as they notice I am standing next to their container. I can feel a snake relax when it becomes comfortable around my shoulders or on my lap. I believe that they have limited abilities, but do have the capacity to think to some degree and to make simple decisions in response to outside stimuli. I believe that they live mostly in the moment, however, with less regard for the past and little for the future.

  • Debbie

    I really enjoyed reading this article. I am looking forward to hearing and/or reading more about cognitive behavior in reptiles. I have a small family of them with a few different species. The obvious cognitives would be our bearded dragons. They respond to almost every person that is in near them. They respond to seeing their salad come to them. Mine get excited at the glass. They want to be held, etc. I have a young milksnake who watches me. He is ever curious. Also, for me, the different personalities between my leopard geckos shows that they each have an inherent awareness. Thanks for writing on this subject!!

  • John F Taylor Post author

    I have heard similar behaviors in other tortoise owners and I am not sure either but I feel they are recognizing something. Thanks for commenting as well we really appreciate that. We are continually looking into new areas of exploring our reptile companions outside of their enclosures and finding out what makes them tick to use a tired adage. Look for more posts like this, the next one should be reptile foraging.

  • TortoiseBlog

    Super, well written article.
    I have often seen on forums that tortoises seem to come to their owners when called or hear their owners voice.
    My tortoise, for instance, does seem to recognise me or my voice more than my wife’s, and reacts differently. For example, in the morning when I look in on him before feeding, if he sees me he will start walking around trying to get out, I don’t have to speak to him. This is from a distance of 2m, I’m not up close at all. When he’s in his outdoor paddock, if hears me before he sees me sees he will wander over normally at fast pace to investigate. Whereas if he sees my wife when outside he does not pay that much attention at all.
    Now I’m not sure what he is thinking, is he just being territorial and checking out the intruder or recognising me as the food/let me outside person. Maybe he just likes my voice :)

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