Reptile Intelligence

While often overlooked, reptiles are incredibly intelligent. Their cognitive powers continue to surprise researchers and keepers alike!


Studies have shown that even the humble pond slider can be quite smart. They can solve mazes at a level comparable to rats!

Higher brain functions, including reasoning, imagination and emotion, occur in the neocortex region of the brain. The reptile brain lacks this area, but they are still very smart.


Alligators have a reputation for being fierce, dense, and dangerous, but this creature is much more intelligent than we think. It’s one of the most attentive parents in the reptile world, staying with their hatchlings for up to three years, and they have been known to use tools. They’re also excellent hunters, using a combination of telescopic vision and thermal sensing to find their prey.

Alligators communicate with each other in their natural habitat by making a variety of calls and body language. They can also remember patterns of ocean currents, adjusting their behavior accordingly for migration. Their skin sensors are incredibly sensitive to vibration, allowing them to detect animals or other alligators entering their water. They’ll often “lurk” in the shadows of a pond’s edge, only their eyes and nostrils peeking out of the water, so they’re virtually undetectable by a casual observer.

A University of Tennessee study found that captive alligators exhibit similar behaviors as those in the wild, even if they’ve been handled by humans for many years. They can still display territorial and mating behaviors and are at risk of bites if hungry or aggressive. However, their aggression is based on instincts, and the limbic system and medulla oblongata in their brains control them. They cannot feel love or empathy, but they can learn to behave a certain way when presented with certain clues paired with a reward or consequence.


Despite being regarded as ‘slow’, tortoises are one of the smartest reptile species around. They are able to use memory and adapt their navigational strategies in the same way that humans can. They are also able to recognise individuals of their species and human companions. This is perhaps partly why they are often used in folklore and mythology to symbolise wisdom.

In many of the experiments aimed at measuring reptile intelligence, scientists put creatures in situations that would make them react a certain way. This could include putting them in a maze or giving them food puzzles. However, these tests were usually developed with mammals in mind and may not be as challenging for a reptile. This has led to the belief that reptiles aren’t as intelligent as they actually are.

Tortoises can also recognise if they are in pain, thanks to their ability to feel pressure on their shells. This is similar to how humans can feel their fingernails scratching against a hard surface. It is thought that this might help them to avoid predators or even save themselves if they are unable to get to safety quickly.

It is time to change the perception of reptiles as simple, unintelligent animals. They are far more complex in their emotional lives than we first thought and this has the potential to impact how we treat them. We at Nashville Zoo are committed to ensuring that these fascinating creatures can be enjoyed and cared for in the future.


A lot of people think of Komodo dragons and other monitor lizards when they hear the term “reptile intelligence,” but even smaller pets such as geckos, bearded dragons and tegu lizards have plenty of brain power. One study found that tegus were capable of learning how to open hinged doors for food rewards, and they remembered the steps when presented with new tests.

Researchers have also discovered that tegus and other lizards are capable of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, an advanced form of sleep associated with dreaming in humans. And they’re just as smart as other mammals when it comes to problem-solving. In one experiment, 8 Black-throated Monitor lizards took less than 10 minutes to figure out how to open a latch and gain access to mice inside cages. They did so quickly, and remembered their solutions on subsequent trials, a sign of incredible cognitive ability.

Emerald anoles have another trait that makes them one of the smartest reptiles: When threatened, they can drop their tail to avoid being eaten and regrow it later. The same can be said for crocodiles, which can use their frill of skin around their neck to blend in with their surroundings.

Although research into reptiles’ sentience is still relatively limited, it’s growing. Showing that reptiles are complex and emotional beings can help reposition them alongside more popular mammalian species, and help inform public perceptions of their welfare needs in captivity.


Despite their reputation as unthinking, scaly creatures, snakes possess impressive intelligence. Their ability to navigate complex mazes and improve their performance based on repetition has been proven. Additionally, they can recognize their keepers and owners. This is important because it allows the animals to become accustomed to the handler and build a trusting relationship.

Snakes also display behavioral flexibility, which is the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. They are able to adjust their movements and behaviors to fit the situation, even when it is not their natural habitat. This behavioral flexibility is a mark of intelligence and is not always seen in other reptiles.

Crocodiles, a limbless reptile that evolved from (and is grouped with) lizards, are one of the smartest reptiles and can conceal themselves for extended periods before ambushing prey. They also have the ability to roar, which makes them more intimidating to their predators.

In order for a reptile to be considered intelligent it must exhibit at least two of these traits; behavioral flexibility and cognitive abilities. It is important to remember that an animal’s intelligence does not determine whether or not they experience basic animal welfare needs, such as freedom from discomfort, disease, injury and hunger. The perception that reptiles are incapable of feeling is harmful, as it can prevent people from providing them with the best care possible.