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A Real Smart Asp: Snakes Show Surprising Ability To Learn

New findings suggest that when it comes to learning and cognition, the humble snake may be quite a bit more like humans than anyone had imagined. David Holtzman, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester, has found that snakes have a much greater capacity for learning than earlier studies had indicated. His research also indicates that, like humans, many snakes rely on sight to get around, and that older and younger snakes differ in how they gather and decipher information about the world around them.

The findings appear in the January issue of Animal Behaviour.

Holtzman's study challenged 24 captive-bred corn snakes (species Elaphe guttata guttata) to escape from a black plastic tub the size of a child's wading pool. Cards mounted on the arena's walls and tape on its floor provided the snakes with visual and tactile cues to find their goal: holes in the tub's bottom that offer a dark, cozy spot to hide.

"These snakes appear to have a very strong aversion to the bright lights and open spaces found in the arena. When a snake is first placed in the arena, it tends to circle around the edge, looking for a way out," says Holtzman, an assistant professor of brain and cognitive science. His team found that given a nudge in the right direction, snakes are readily taught to find the exits -- and then recall how to use cues to find them in successive trials.

Simply stumbling into a hole isn't the only proof that the snakes are learning something, though. "Speed to find that goal is one of the measures which shows they're learning," Holtzman says. "On average, they take over 700 seconds to find the correct hole on the first day of training, and then go down to about 400 seconds by the fourth day of training. Some are actually very fast and find it in less than 30 seconds."

Studies dating back to the 1950s interpreted snakes' clumsiness with mazes as a poor reflection on their intelligence. Holtzman's peers regard his
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Contact: Tom Rickey
trickey@admin.rochester.edu
716-275-7954
University of Rochester
5-Feb-1999


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