New research explores the effect of winter dormancy on cold-blooded cognition

New research explores the effect of winter dormancy in cold-blooded cognition

Unlike mammals, amphibians who rest up during the winter do not forget the memories they made beforehand – this is the surprising discovery of new scientific research.

New research explores the effect of winter dormancy in cold-blooded cognition
New research explores the effect of winter dormancy in cold-blooded cognition
Photo: Johannes Hloch

The new study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, reveals that the processes involved in winter dormancy may have a fundamentally different impact on memory in amphibians and mammals.

Researchers from the University of Lincoln, UK, and two universities in Vienna, Austria, discovered that brumation – the period of winter dormancy that is observed in cold-blooded animals, similar to the process of hibernation in mammals – does not seem to adversely affect the memory of salamanders.

This key finding differs dramatically from previous studies of mammals, which show that hibernation often causes animals to forget some of the memories they formed prior to their period of inactivity.

Dr Anna Wilkinson, from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln, led the study in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Vienna and the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna.

Dr Wilkinson said: “Long-term torpor is an adaptive strategy that allows animals to survive harsh winter conditions. However, the impact that this has on cognitive function is poorly understood. We know that in mammals, hibernation causes reduced synaptic activity and can cause them to lose some of the memories they formed prior to hibernation, but the effect of brumation on memory has been unexplored, until now.”

The researchers trained twelve salamanders to navigate a maze and remember the path they needed to take to reach a reward. Half of the animals were then placed into brumation for 100 days, while the other half remained under normal keeping conditions.

A post-brumation memory retention test revealed that animals from both conditions recalled how to navigate the maze.

“We demonstrated that each of the animals solved the task using memory, rather than sensory cues such as smell of the reward, and we’re therefore confident that the period of brumation did not impact on their ability to remember,” Anne Hloch, another author on the paper explained. “For these animals, memory retention is essential for survival as it allows them to recall important information about the environment, such as the location of food and the presence of predators.”

The researchers suggest that the differences in retention observed between mammals and amphibians could be caused by their different learning and memory processes, or the nature of their torpor. Mammals regularly rouse from their hibernation and enter intervals of sleep, whereas cold-blooded animals are dependent on the temperature of their surroundings during brumation and are therefore forced to stay torpid until temperatures rise.

The paper is available to read online.

Lizards and Life Sciences to broadcast on Canadian TV


A Canadian TV broadcaster visits Life Sciences lecturer Dr Anna Wilkinson to get up close and personal with our resident bearded dragons and tortoises.

CBC will broadcast a feature on Dr Wilkinson’s work looking into the cognition of cold-blooded animals.

The programme will air in Canada later in the year, however we got a sneak peak behind the scenes with these amazing photos of our bearded dragon. Check them out below!

Read more about Anna’s research into bearded dragons and red-footed tortoises.

Follow Anna Wilkinson on social media here: Facebook and Twitter

Competition launched to name University of Lincoln tortoise

The University of Lincoln, UK, has welcomed three new arrivals to its growing family of red-footed tortoises – and would like the public’s help in naming one.

Donated by the tortoise, terrapin and turtle care and conservation charity British Chelonia Group, the tortoises were in need of a happy home after previous owners were unable to look after them.

The University of Lincoln’s Cold-Blooded Cognition research group within the School of Life Sciences has already named two of the new additions, Ulli and Gerard. They decided to ask the public for their input following tortoise Charles Darwin gaining fame by helping TV presenter Chris Packham officially open the University’s new Joseph Banks Laboratories in April 2015.

Charles Darwin, one of 24 red-footed tortoises who call the University of Lincoln home, hit the headlines all over the world after chewing through a ‘ribbon’ of his favourite snack – rocket – to declare the state-of-the-art labs open.
The social media campaign #nameourtortoise starts on Thursday, 18th June and runs until midnight on June 25th 2015. Simply tweet @unilincoln with your name suggestion and the reason for it, to be in with a chance of winning a University of Lincoln goodie bag and hooded top and meeting the tortoises in their home surroundings.

Dr Anna Wilkinson, who leads the Cold-Blooded Cognition research group, said: “We are extremely grateful to the British Chelonia Group for rehoming these tortoises with us. Not only can we provide an appropriate environment for them to live in but they can also help us develop our understanding of the cognitive capabilities of reptiles. We are interested in understanding how they perceive the world, how they learn about their environment and how they use and retain this information. They are extremely intelligent animals and generally work well for treats – their favourite being strawberries!”

Most recently Dr Wilkinson revealed that tortoises learned how to use touchscreens as part of a study which aimed to teach the animals navigational techniques.

To understand how tortoises learn to navigate around their environment, the researchers tested how the reptiles relied on cues to get around. They were given treats when the reptiles pecked blue circles in a specific position on a touchscreen.

Two of the tortoises went on to apply their knowledge to a real-life situation, approaching a food bowl on the same side as the circle that they were trained to peck on the screen.

A spokesperson for The British Chelonia Group said: “Our charity is happy to support this non-invasive, yet crucial research project of red-footed tortoises at the University of Lincoln, which will lead to a better understanding of intelligence in chelonia and their perception of the world. Revealing their true cognitive capabilities will improve husbandry and benefit tortoise keepers, vets and conservationists alike.”

Follow @coldbloodedcog on Twitter for more information on the research group and to keep up to date with the tortoises’ activities. Click here for terms & conditions.

First evidence that reptiles can learn through imitation

New research has for the first time provided evidence that reptiles could be capable of social learning through imitation.

The ability to acquire new skills through the ‘true imitation’ of others’ behaviour is thought to be unique to humans and advanced primates, such as chimpanzees.

Scientists draw an important distinction between imitation and emulation when studying the cognitive abilities of animals. In true imitation, the individual ‘copying’ another’s behaviour not only mimics what they see, but also understands the intention behind the action. In emulation, an animal copies a behaviour without understanding its deeper significance: for example, a parrot reciting the words of its owner.

There is considerable debate about the extent to which non-primates are capable of true imitation.

Now researchers from the UK and Hungary have presented the first compelling scientific evidence that reptiles could be capable of social learning through imitation.

They set out to investigate whether the bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps) is capable of imitating another bearded dragon through a simple experiment using a wooden board which contained a doorway.

All subjects successfully copied the actions of the demonstrator lizard, suggesting for the first time that reptiles exhibit social learning through imitation equivalent to that observed in ‘higher’ species.

Lead researcher Dr Anna Wilkinson from the School of Life Sciences, University of Lincoln, UK, said: “The ability to learn through imitation is thought to be the pinnacle of social learning and long considered a distinctive characteristic of humans. However, nothing is known about these abilities in reptiles. This research suggests that the bearded dragon is capable of social learning that cannot be explained by simple mechanisms – such as an individual being drawn to a certain location because they observed another in that location or through observational learning.

The finding is not compatible with the claim that only humans, and to a lesser extent great apes, are able to imitate.”
Reptiles and mammals evolved from a common ancestor and the investigation of similarities and differences in their behaviour is essential for understanding the evolution of cognition, Dr Wilkinson explained.

Recent advances in the field of reptile cognition have found evidence of sophisticated abilities in this group.

The latest research, published in the academic journal Animal Cognition, involved 12 bearded dragons which had not previously been involved in cognition experiments.

One lizard was trained to act as a ‘demonstrator’, opening a wire door which covered a hole in a wooden board. The door could be moved horizontally along sliding rails to left or right by use of the head or the foot. The demonstrator was then rewarded with food (a mealworm) on the other side of the door.

The subjects were divided into an experimental group and a control group. The experimental group watched the demonstrator lizard approaching the test apparatus and opening the door with a sliding head movement.

All eight experimental subjects went on to successfully open the sliding door, pushing it to the same side they had observed. None of the control group subjects did this.

A key difference between the control and experimental groups was that, while sliding head movement occurred in the case of all experimental subjects, it was never observed in the control subjects. As this was the movement that the demonstrator performed in order to open the sliding door, this suggests that experimental subjects imitated an action that was not part of their spontaneous behaviour.

Dr Wilkinson concluded: “This, together with differences in behaviour between experimental and control groups, suggests that learning by imitation is likely to be based on ancient mechanisms. These results reveal the first evidence of imitation in a reptile species and suggest that reptiles can use social information to learn through imitation.”

The team included researchers from Eötvös University in Hungary, Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna.

For a video of the research go to:

Anna Kis, Ludwig Huber and Anna Wilkinson ‘Social learning by imitation in a reptile (Pogona vitticeps)’ Animal Cognition DOI 10.1007/s10071-014-0803-7

Photo credit: Samantha Penrice

Tortoises master touchscreen technology

Tortoises have learned how to use touchscreens as part of a study which aimed to teach the animals navigational techniques.

The research, which was led by Dr Anna Wilkinson, from the School of Life Sciences, involved red-footed tortoises, which are native to Central and South America. The brain structure of reptiles is very different to that of mammals, which use the hippocampus for spatial navigation.

Instead, it is thought that the reptilian medial cortex serves as a homologue, however very little behavioural work has actually examined this. To understand how tortoises learn to navigate around their environment, the researchers tested how the reptiles relied on cues to get around.

Dr Wilkinson said: “Tortoises are perfect to study as they are considered largely unchanged from when they roamed the world millions of years ago. And this research is important so we can better understand the evolution of the brain and the evolution of cognition.”

Dr Wilkinson carried out the initial training while at the University of Vienna, giving the tortoises treats such as strawberries when the reptiles looked at, approached and then pecked blue circles on the screen.

Two of the tortoises, Esme and Quinn, went on to apply their knowledge to a real-life situation.

The researchers placed them in an arena with two empty food bowls that looked like the blue circles on the touchscreen. The tortoises went to the bowl on the same side as the circles they were trained to peck on the screen.

Dr Wilkinson explained: “Their task was to simply remember where they had been rewarded, learning a simple response pattern on the touchscreen. They then transferred what they had learned from the touchscreen into a real-world situation. This tells us that when navigating in real space they do not rely on simple motor feedback but learn about the position of stimuli within an environment.

“The big problem is how to ask all animals a question that they are equally capable of answering. The touchscreen is a brilliant solution as all animals can interact with it, whether it is with a paw, nose or beak. This allows us to compare the different cognitive capabilities.”

The study ‘Touchscreen performance and knowledge transfer in the red-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonaria)’ was published in the journal Behavioral Processes

To see the tortoises in action go to