How Smart are Turtles? Do they Understand Human Language?

Turtles are an ancient species. There have been turtle fossils that date back to more than 200 million years. Paleontologists have concluded that the old turtles resembled the turtles of today. This discovery means that their hardy shell and their brains have protected them for so long. They survived events that have killed other animals or resulted in mass extinction.

We can surmise that turtles have excellent brain capabilities. If you are a turtle owner, then you know this to be. Turtle owners can see their turtles exploring their surroundings with curiosity.

A burning question is: how smart are turtles? Do they have a developed brain like most intelligent animals? Has their brain trained them to be survivalists?

Let us take a look and unfurl this mystery together.

How Smart are Turtles?

Turtles are pretty smart. They employ their senses and instincts for various functions. Pet turtles can pick up reasoning and problem-solving techniques. This training is the outcome of several trial-and-error experiences.

Do turtles have brains?

Yes, turtles have brains like every other creature in the world. The brain functions as an essential organ and helps us survive.

Today’s turtles have more complicated brains than the ancient species. Paleontologists believe that the older turtles’ brains had a more straightforward structure. Those turtles had many under-developed senses.

The turtles of today have a more complex brain structure and are intelligent. They have different anatomical shapes to help them adapt to their surroundings better.

This evolution is the same as other living creatures, including human beings.

It means that turtles are smart, and they have something called ‘instinctual intelligence.’

How Powerful is the Turtle Brain?

Do turtles have brains

The brains of turtles are pretty powerful. Researchers have proven that turtles’ brains can remember specific experiences. They can use that knowledge to learn from it.

Additionally, turtles have modern brains now, and this helps them to do many things.

Different species have different brain shapes or sizes. This brain is what aids them in learning about their surroundings.

Researchers conduct many studies to show how intelligent turtles are. They try to determine which is the most intelligent turtle species.

The Smartest Turtle Species

The North American Wood turtle is the most brilliant. It is one of the most intelligent turtle species. It is the subject of many studies because it has a different brain structure than other turtles. We study these turtles because they contain increased intelligence. The unique thing about these is that they have a homing ability. It means that they can decide the direction of where they can find food. North American Wood turtles are aware of their location and surroundings. Research proves that they have a better memory than their other turtle companions.

Hence, it is safe to say that a turtle’s brain is powerful enough.

Learning Ability of A Turtle

Turtles are not as bright as other pets, but they do have a decent ability to learn.

A pet turtle learns many things in captivity, such as expecting food at certain times of the day. When the owner comes over with food, these pets will already be awaiting them!

Pet turtles can recognize the voice and faces of their owners.

Terrestrial tortoises will learn who their owners are even faster than sea turtles. They tend to follow their owners everywhere.

Turtles can learn to respond to their names over time.

Natural Instincts of A Turtle

Natural Instincts of A Turtle

Like every other animal, even turtles have certain instincts. Their instincts help them survive better.

Turtles use their senses and instincts for several reasons. Studies have shown that aquatic turtles travel hundreds of miles. They travel to find a better living environment, to find a mate, or a place with a lot of food. The surprising thing about this is that they can return to their original site. They can come back even if they migrate for more than a hundred miles.

Turtles instinctively mark their hatching place. This practice allows them to return to that spot even years later. The turtles use this location as a hatching spot for their babies.

Even sea turtles can dive deep into the sea to look for food. They do this because other animals might not recognize them at night.

These instincts of turtles have helped them through all these years of evolution.

Understanding Turtles’ Spatial Sense

Spatial sense means the recognition of the space or the surroundings near oneself.

Many experiments tried to see if turtles are smart enough to understand the spatial changes around them.

In many such experiments, researchers create a floor with a deep hole.  They cover the hole with a glass sheet. This effect creates a faux cliff. 

Researchers use a  lot of different animals for these experiments, such as rats or lizards.

Studies found that many less intelligent animals would run right over the glass sheet. Of course, if it were a natural cliff, they would fall right off and die.

This study shows that these creatures do not have spatial awareness.

But, Painted turtles were quite cautious when they approached the cliff. They are another species of turtles. Yet, this did not stop them from going over the cliff.

Terrestrial turtles such as box turtles did not step beyond the cliff.

These studies showed that aquatic turtles like Painted turtles dive straight into the water. They do not need to watch out for depths. It means that they do not have a spatial sense. Terrestrial turtles spend their lives on land. They have to have a keen sense of spatial awareness to ensure they do not fall to their death.

Can you train turtles?

Can you train turtles

The ability to remember and learn from past experiences is what makes turtles bright.

Turtles have a brain, so it is possible to train your pet turtle like you would train your pet dog or cat.

Turtles can learn in two different ways:

Problem-solving abilities

Like other pets, pet turtles can learn problem-solving skills and reasoning. This training is a result of various trial and error scenarios.

Turtles use their instincts to solve problems. Over time, they can use their past observations and memories to solve problems.

Training process

With incentives like treats, you can train your turtle.

Turtles train themselves when it comes to feeding timings. Turtles can learn to expect food at certain times of the day. This habit helps to regulate the feeding time and keeps their health in check.

With some training, your turtles might even give you their nails for clipping. You can train them to get into a box if you are traveling with them.

You can train turtles quite well with patience and suitable reinforcements. But, remember that this process takes time.

The part of our brain that handles learning is our cerebral hemisphere. For most reptiles, including turtles, this part is minor in size. So you might have to be patient with your pet turtle before you can expect it to do tricks for you.

Do Turtles Understand Human Language?

No, turtles are unable to undertake human language. The most that they can do is distinguish between tones and sounds. Turtles do this by focusing on the wavelengths of the sounds produced.

You might see your pet turtle responding to some sounds you make while you speak. It only means that they can identify similar sounds from time to time. It does not mean that your turtle understands what you are saying.

How Smart Is A Red-Eared Slider?

How Smart Is A Red-Eared Slider

Compared to other turtle species, Red Eared Sliders are a species of turtles who, like pets, are very smart. They can recognize the voice of their owners, and sometimes even their appearance.

These turtles can respond to some basic commands and are aware of their names.

They will try to escape if they are not in their tank, so be careful! Also, they can grow quite big in size even in captivity.

How Smart Is A Box Turtle?

Box turtles are pretty smart. Many studies show that in the wild, box turtles are adept at remembering their native places. They will go through long routes such as forests, valleys, and so on. They will do much more to return to the places they had been to earlier. A Box Turtle will use these places for mating, food, nesting, etc. They are very bright. The box turtles guessed the faux cliff and did not go over it.

How Smart Are Painted Turtles?

Painted turtles are related to Box turtles. And so, they are pretty impressive when it comes to intelligence. They have excellent eyesight and the ability to smell. A painted turtle can recognize its owners or humans who feed them.

Do Turtles Have Good Memory?

There is little doubt that turtles have a good memory. Turtles tend to remember things that help them. Some of these things are recognizing their owners and accepting food from them. Turtles remember past events and can use those as learning experiences. It means that their memory is not fickle. Turtles remember the scent and appearance of their owners. But, some things like commands or certain fleeting situations may be difficult for your turtle to keep in mind forever.

How To Measure The Smartness And Intelligence Of Turtles?

There are many methods to measure the IQ and smartness of humans, but that is not the case with animals. There is no standard method to test the intelligence of animals. But, researchers have been able to develop some reliable techniques to measure the brightness of animals. But, they all differ from animal to animal.

For small creatures such as rats or crows, for instance, the measuring scale is different. You might have seen some mazes and puzzles for rats to solve or similar tests.

For turtles, this is not as easy. Turtles are solitary animals. The only time they communicate with others of their species is in their natural habitat. It is when they are mating. Due to this reason, there have been no reliable measures to test the smartness of turtles.

Can A Turtle Recognize You?

Turtle brains can remember. So yes, your pet turtle will be able to recognize you. Research shows that turtles can recognize their owners as a way of getting food.

They will associate their owners with a food source. They will also show excitement whenever you are near the tank! They are an intelligent species, after all.

Do Turtles Have Feelings?

Turtles do not have a complex range of feelings like humans. But, they are capable of expressing some baser feelings and emotions.

Turtles do feel pain. They experience this sensation of pain when hurt, or their shells are painful for them.

This species feels fear in the wild. Turtles can sense danger and act accordingly to protect themselves.

Stress is one prominent feeling for turtles. They experience stress when their living conditions are not ideal or if they feel threatened.

Turtles cannot express these emotions like they express anger, happiness, or sadness.


We have seen that turtles are pretty intelligent creatures. Turtles have sound spatial awareness. They instinctively return to their place of origin. Turtles are not as trainable as some other pets. But, as long as this lets them live in peace, it should not be a problem. Of course, you cannot teach them to play fetch, but they can still prove to be charming pets!

Also read: Check out this turtle care guide on caring for your older turtle and this one for your baby slider turtle. If you are curious about turtles and their habits, check this: How long turtle can last without food.

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