Reptile learning and cognition – not something many people think of when they see an anole run across their garden wall. The traditional train of thought when thinking about reptiles is that they are animals with tiny brains ruled by instinct, but we know better in the Herpetology Department. Although challenging, reptiles are very capable of learning cued behaviors (or simply put, being trained by us care team members).
Like any animal, the positive reinforcement training process starts with building trust; it’s just that in the herpetology world, environmental factors and physical limitations play a larger role than in the mammal world (or at the very least a different role). You can probably ask your pet dog to sit (assuming they know the command) at any time and they will be more than willing to comply, especially if a treat is in the near future for them. Things are different in the herpetology world – if it is the middle of winter and I ask our crocodiles to station, chances are I am going to be ignored. The environment is cold, the crocs are cool, and their metabolisms are slowed way down; it doesn’t matter how many fish I have waiting for them at the station – they will not care because they don’t need that fish. And because we use only positive reinforcement training here at Zoo Atlanta, if the crocs choose not to participate, that’s okay.
Crocodiles are an excellent example of what the “tiny” reptile brains are capable of. They can learn a variety of cued behaviors – including things like target, station, and even their names. Not only can they learn these behaviors, but they can remember them, even after a long winter fast (brumation). Crocs are notorious for recognizing their keepers and recognizing when someone is different or new – someone who may not know the rules and should be tested (or at least that’s what it seems like they are thinking), always trying to sneak an easier path to the reward. For example, when we ask our crocodiles to go to the water, we want all four feet in the water, and if Babu or Meci think they can get away with just two feet in the water and two on the ramp, they will try it.
It doesn’t just stop with crocodiles when it comes to training in herpetology – if you can find a positive motivation for an animal, and you can work within the restraints of what they are physically capable of, you can in theory train a behavior. We train behaviors in the zoological community in order to try and create an environment of well-being for the animals, with the ultimate goal of creating safe conditions (for us and the animals) and allowing the animal to have an important aspect of choice in their care. Training takes all shapes and sizes, from more basic behaviors like having an animal to station away from a door so we can enter and clean safely, to more complex behaviors like training for voluntary veterinary procedures and everything in between. Just remember not to count out the reptiles and their “tiny” brains.
Keeper I, Herpetology