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reptile intelligence redux

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Posted by: 53kw at Sat Nov 20 13:35:26 2010  [ Report Abuse ] [ Email Message ] [ Show All Posts by 53kw ]  

In his post below, Pete mentioned that his Clifton’s racer seemed intelligent. That got me thinking about reptile intelligence.

The quest to define ourselves has gone on as long as we have existed. From the earliest cave paintings of a human hand outlined in berry juice sprayed from the painter’s mouth to the present and doubtless forever, we humans seem to have a compelling need to make sure the universe knew we were here.

Along the way we’ve made some pretty strange claims, including more than a few thoughtless, self-serving claims. We’ve declared even our own kind to be lacking in basic intelligence and feeling when it suited our purpose. Reptiles have hardly stood a chance of being recognized as sentient, entitled creatures.

As we revisit old turf through the lens of renewed scientific curiosity, we find that we were wrong about quite a bit, including reptile intelligence, emotion and entitlements. It turns out that lizards can count, that snakes are emotional and that many reptiles are actually caring parents in their own right.

It’s the lie-in-wait herps that throw us. Hard-wired for levels of patience usually attributed to glaciers, they rarely wear their hearts on their sleeves…or would if they had sleeves. Boas, rattlesnakes and other easy-to-keep species so dear to the hearts of zoos because they are near-zero maintenance, have intelligence, feelings, perhaps even desires, but good luck getting them to show it.

Sighthunters are their polar opposites in expression. Racers, coachwhips, indigos and cobras have to solve problems as they pursue existences across the fullest spectrum of situations. A recent study of crows ended up crowing about how intelligent crows are because they recognized masks worn by researchers in different situations. My coachwhips and racers know my face, no matter what clothes I’m wearing, and ignore most other people even at feeding time. They also know when I’m preparing to offer them food and show emotion in the snake way – through body language.

Racers which are excited in positive ways vibrate their tails and wiggle their bodies in ways that probably share the same physiological roots as similar expressions in dogs. Even people get a spine tingle when apprehensive or excited – ancient shared sensations rising from emotion. 350 million years ago, it’s likely only one line – or a very few lines – of amniotes existed on Earth and although they split into many lines, leaving two distinct lineages to survive to the present, there was a time when we surviving amniotes were all one flesh, and we carried away much shared physical and neural infrastructure when we diverged.

Snake body language is subtly different when the snake is alarmed. Racers and coachwhips, among the most expressive of snakes, have a curious little neck ripple they do when they are not sure of a situation. Tail vibrating and body sine-waving are common to positive and negative excitement; most of you have noticed that dogs wag when alarmed as well as happy – it’s emotion that tingles the spine, not merely fear.

When I’ve kept wild-caught racers for brief periods then released them, they get very active as they approach their release points. It’s well established that snakes have among the most sensitive olfaction of any living things, and short-term captives doubtless smell their home turf through the bags before they are released. I’ve seen just-released racers climb into trees or tall shrubs and stay there, taking in the sunlight and the fresh air when they could easily have sought shelter and concealment. Were they glad to be home? They looked like they were.

If reptiles do feel joy, sadness and other emotions, it’s a short step to accepting that they have native entitlements to adequate habitat and lives free of human interference. That may not go over well with some human agendas, like putting housing developments anywhere we want. Motives for pushback against the idea that reptiles are intelligent, sensitive, deserving creatures can come from many quarters.

Pete’s Clifton’s racer, my captive-bred racers and coachwhips, and wild reptiles demonstrate problem-solving intelligence, curiosity (how many of us have seen racers periscoping from concealment to check us out as we pass?) and individuality. I hope the Sighthunters provide enough evidence of reptile intelligence and emotion to stimulate professional scholars to begin serious investigations into just what kind of creatures we share the world with.


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