Reptile research and studies has revealed much more about these fascinating creatures than previously thought. Reptiles are capable of playing, bonding with owners, exhibiting social behaviour and even suffering.
Sadly, indicative behaviours observed in reptiles can often be overlooked when it comes to animal welfare assessments. These include hiding or delaying feeding and exhibiting body postures that indicate pain, fear or stress.
What are Reptiles?
Reptiles are cold-blooded, air-breathing vertebrates that evolved from amphibians 380 million years ago. Reptilia includes a diverse array of creatures, from the graceful turtles and tortoises to the ferocious crocodiles and alligators. Most reptiles hatch from eggs. The class of reptiles encompasses four distinct orders: Testudines, comprising the turtles and tortoises; Crocodilia, encompassing crocodilians and alligators; Squamata, containing snakes and lizards; and Rhynchocephalia, containing the tuatara and other ophidians.
Many species of reptiles display a wide range of behavioral responses triggered by sensory perception. For instance, chameleons can change their color to mimic their environment, while a lizard may scratch itself for fun or as a way of expressing stress.
Some reptiles, such as turtles and tortoises, exhibit a strong social tendency, often living in groups or forming a hierarchy. In contrast, most snakes and lizards prefer a more solitary lifestyle.
Despite their reputation for being cold, unintelligent animals, there is growing evidence that reptiles are capable of advanced cognitive functions. Scientists have developed the theory that reptiles’ R-complex, a region of the brain governing survival and basic instinctual behavior, is supplemented by a more sophisticated paleomammalian complex responsible for emotional behavior and higher-order problem-solving skills.
It is important for veterinarians to recognize and understand the normal behaviors of reptiles so that they can provide appropriate care to these often misunderstood animals. The ability to assess abnormal reptile behaviours can alert the vet to an illness at an early stage, improving treatment outcomes.
What are Reptile Behaviours?
Reptiles can behave in a wide range of ways. Some reptiles are gregarious and live in social groups, while others are solitary creatures. Most are predatory or scavenging (eating dead animals), but some are herbivores, and some have learned to use a particular habitat for both hunting and hiding.
In addition to food-related behavior, many reptile species have developed defensive behaviors. Some use their squinty eyes to detect movement, and others release a foul-smelling fluid from the musk glands located in the cloacal region. These defenses are often triggered by fear or anger, and they can be misinterpreted during handling.
Sexually motivated behavior is also common in some reptiles. Snakes and lizards can engage in combat for mating rights, but such battles rarely result in fatalities. In addition, some shingleback lizards pair up and remain monogamous over long periods of time.
Scientists are now beginning to understand how reptiles communicate with each other in the wild. For example, certain solitary lizards can detect the presence of another lizard nearby by its smell. The ability to sense a friend can be helpful in finding prey, hiding from predators or other important activities.
Understanding how reptiles think and feel may help people better appreciate and care for them in captivity. For instance, if a keeper notices signs of social stress such as hiding, avoiding handling or eating, the presence of other lizards nearby should be considered. Providing sufficient space in enclosures and providing suitable hiding spots can minimize this type of stress, which can lead to disease.
What are Reptile Intelligences?
Many people believe that reptiles, such as pythons and snakes, lack the intelligence to have emotions or even think. However, researchers have discovered that snakes have a wide range of cognitive functions. One study completed by the University of Lincoln revealed that snakes can memorise mazes, improve their performance on subsequent trials based on spatial learning and also adapt their navigation strategy to environmental changes. Another study found that corn snakes can find their way out of a maze after only one attempt, and that they have the ability to learn from past experiences.
While the research is limited, it is important to highlight the intelligence of reptiles as a way of changing perceptions and encouraging respect for their welfare needs in captivity. For example, reptiles can suffer from stress, pain and depression when their natural home range is not provided for in captivity, so it is crucial to recognise that they are intelligent, feeling animals who have basic animal welfare needs.
It is worth mentioning that the majority of studies focus on snakes and lizards, which may be due to their larger size and accessibility. It is vital to include a wider variety of reptile species in future research, as they all have different cognitive abilities. Research into the ability of reptiles to feel joy, sadness, frustration and pain is vital, and should be a high priority in future studies.
What are Reptile Sentiences?
Despite the fact that many reptiles live far from their natural environments and are subjected to captivity, they still feel a variety of emotions. In general, they feel fear and anxiety as well as contentment and pleasure. They do not feel love and affection as we know it, but they can form positive bonds with humans that exhibit a range of signs such as head bobs or rub against them.
It is also likely that they feel pain, as it requires a large central nervous system to perceive it and respond to painkilling medication. They may also experience other feelings such as surprise, happiness, curiosity, or anger, but we cannot be sure of these due to the lack of research. Some lizards have been shown to greet their owners with a head bob or by rubbing against them, and some snakes appear to display familial ties with their human handlers. However, we can only speculate whether these are indications of affection or love as they are not as common as the behavior exhibited by mammals when interacting with their owners.
It is vital that researchers explore these positive states and their underlying causes in reptiles. This will help to challenge the perception of these animals as unfeeling creatures and may be particularly useful in highlighting their capacity for empathy with people, which could be beneficial for their welfare.