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Do turtles play?

Hi Everyone! It’s Dr. Joe Mendelson, the Director of Research here at Zoo Atlanta, and today we’re talking about some research we’re currently doing on play behavior in diamondback terrapins. Play behavior is exactly the way you would interpret it as a human- something that’s fun and silly and sometimes is for a purpose and sometimes the purpose seems to be simply fun. As humans we definitely know what play behavior is.

In animals, play behavior does exist, and in many cases it’s purposeful. For example, puppies roughing and tumbling is an important way for them to build physical coordination and develop social skills, both of which are crucial. So that play has a real purpose to it. In other cases, play does not seem to have a purpose, other than what you and I would call fun. And we think we’re seeing play behavior in these turtles, which is remarkable if we’re right.

There’s a pump in the corner of the terrapin habitat designed to keep water flowing. Over time, these turtles have figured out that if they swim in low underneath the water stream and come up into the plume, they’ll tumble down like they’re on a log ride. When they run out of steam, they go back down and they do it again. We think this is play behavior.

Some students from Georgia Tech and Georgia State and I are making these observations, and we’re hoping to make the case that we’ve documented purposeless play behavior in a turtle. Stay tuned!

Dr. Joe Mendelson
Director of Research

See this behavior on video here

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