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Snakes Can Learn Too

Which animal has more brain cells… reptiles or humans? Well, the truth is that reptiles like snakes can produce a limitless number of brain cells throughout their life. Humans, however, can only produce new cells in the part of the brain called the hippocampus, which relates only to memory and spatial perception. 

So, snakes have many more brain cells, but what does this mean for intelligence? Previous studies have tested snakes against mice and rats using mazes to test their learning abilities. Snakes never seemed to do as well. However, Dr. David Holtzman, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester, says this kind of testing is unfair to snakes because they do not come across this type of situation (mazes) in their environment. Instead, he says that snakes can learn with the help of people who understand them.

Dr. Holtzman’s research focused on teaching snakes to find hidden shelters where they could escape from open spaces. He accomplished this by placing 24 corn snakes in large tubes with several holes, only one of which led to a shelter. Since these snakes are nocturnal, he put a light at one end of the tube to motivate the snakes to move. To help guide the snakes, he also marked the hole that led to the shelter with bright colors and tape. The snakes were taught the location of the correct holes by people who guided them with their hands. 

After four trials a day for four days, the snakes learned to go directly to the hole with the shelter. He found that on average, it took the snakes a little less than 12 minutes to find the hidden shelter on the first try. On the second try, most found the shelter after about 7 minutes, and some even found it after 30 seconds. He also found that older snakes were slower to learn than younger snakes. When the colors were changed, younger snakes learned faster than older snakes, showing that the younger snakes were more adaptable to visual cues. 

Dr. Holtzman says this research probably doesn’t mean we can domesticate snakes, but it does show that snakes are smarter than we think. They are not just wandering aimlessly. Perhaps now snakes can be trained, using the right motivation and method.


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