Viva Anna Wilkinson, tortoise cognitionist!

New Scientist reporter Jeff Hecht profiles Anna Wilkinson, whose discovery about contagious yawning in tortoises resulted in an Ig Nobel Prize for her and her colleagues. The report begins:

“IT ALL stems from Moses,” says Anna Wilkinson. Moses is her pet red-footed tortoise and a bit of a celebrity in the science world. Why? First, he outsmarted rats in a maze. Then he was the inspiration for a new lab studying reptile intelligence and the evolutionary origins of cognition. Now he has helped Wilkinson win an Ig Nobel prize. Victory for slow and steady.

This fruitful partnership began in 2004, after Wilkinson, now at the University of Lincoln, UK, started graduate school at the University of York, also in the UK. She was studying bird cognition but had earlier become fascinated by tortoises while employed in education and research at Flamingo Land zoo in North Yorkshire…

The article reveals why earlier brain-centric human scientists assumed—wrongly—that tortoises are mentally slow:

Wilkinson and Hall were now interested in why reptiles had performed so poorly in previous cognitive studies. Taking a closer look at the reports, they found the problem. The earlier research had been done at cool temperatures, which left the cold-blooded animals feeling sluggish. Moses, by contrast, had performed at 29 °C, near the average temperature of the red-footed tortoise’s native habitat in Central and South America. The warmer temperatures boosted Moses’s metabolism, making him alert, lively and ready to conquer a maze….

We are hoping Anna Wilkinson will be part of this year’s Ig Nobel Tour of the UK, in March.

BONUS: The prize-winning study  “No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise,” Anna Wilkinson, Natalie Sebanz, Isabella Mandl, Ludwig Huber, Current Zoology, vol. 57, no. 4, 2011. pp. 477-84.

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