Blue-tongue lizards are born smart, at least as smart as their parents!

By Birgit Szabo

As children we have much to learn after we are born. We learn to walk, to talk, to develop our social skills, and when we start school we learn how to read, write and do maths.

​Humans, and many other animals, are considered altricial, meaning that juveniles need to be taken care of by their parents until a certain point in time when they can go off and live on their own. Some birds, fishes and reptiles are what we call precocial – they start life ready to face the challenges on their own and with little or no parental care or protection. Scientists have long wondered whether precocial animals are as developed in their ability to learn as they seem to be in other aspects of their life.

Eastern blue-tongue lizards are considered an extreme case of a precocial animal. They give birth to live young and juveniles immediately disperse. The fact that they are ready for a life without their parents right after they are born directly relates to their ability to learn. ​

Baby blueys born in the lab.


Similar to our previous study (see below), we used a seven stage visual discrimination task called set-shifting. First, we taught lizards that the food dish in front of a card with an X painted on provided a food reward, while the other dish (in front of a triangle) did not. Next, we wanted to know how lizards perform when we change this rule: in the second stage, instead of the X, choosing the triangle was rewarded. After lizards had learnt (phase 1), we added a second dimension to the cards by painting the background in two different colours (phase 2). These colours were meant to be a distraction for the lizards because they were not relevant for finding food, only the shapes were important. In phase 3 we wanted to know if lizards would generalise what they had learn in the previous stages to novel shapes and colours: ignore the background colour and rely on shapes to find the reward. Finally, in the last part of the experiment we, again, used novel shapes and colours, but contrary to the previous phase we also changed the rule. Instead of the shapes, lizards had to use the background colours to get a reward (Figure 1). All the stages in which we changed the rule are meant to test for behavioural flexibility. If the lizards possess good flexibility they would have an easy time learning during these stages. In other words, they would not take long to reach a learning criterion.

Figure 1. Seven stages of the set-shifting task. One group was taught to discriminate between shapes and the other group between colours.

Overall, lizards were able to learn during all stages of our experiment but most interestingly both adults and juveniles learnt at a similar speed taking approximately the same number of trials to learn. Additionally, when we looked closer at how they learn, both age classes learnt in a similar way. Even more interesting: both adult and juvenile lizards showed good behavioural flexibility (Figure 2).

Juvenile blue-tongue lizards face many dangers during their first weeks of life (and beyond). They may encounter predators for the first time, have to figure out where to sleep and what to eat. Because they are solitary lizards, learning from other blue-tongue lizards, adults or juveniles, is likely rare. This may be why having such good learning abilities at such a young age is so important. Furthermore, in nature, animals often face changes in the environment and need to adjust to survive. An ability to learn new problems quickly and repeatably likely further increases a juvenile’s chances of survival.

Figure 2. Trials taken until the learning criterion (6/6 or 7/8 consecutive trials correct in a row) was reached for both adult and juvenile lizards across the whole experiment

Overall, our results demonstrate that these juvenile lizards are well equipped to face a life without their parents. Lizard parents don’t care for their offspring, juveniles have to fend for themselves but face the same dangers. They need to be as smart as their parents, otherwise they would not survive. We were already aware that young adult lizards can be better social learners compared to older lizards but how well very young juveniles learn compared to adults has been overlooked until now.

Link to publication

Australian Geographic features frilled lizard work!

The latest edition of Australian Geographic features the iconic Australian Frill-necked Lizard (Chlamydosaurus kingii). A big part of the article, written by John Pickrell, features our own Christian Alessandro Perez-Martinez! And the top of the page features his photo (reproduced at left). Well done Christian! Have a read of the article.

The paper, . . . → Read More: Australian Geographic features frilled lizard work!

Hot off the press! An invasive lizard species can learn from other species

Check out our new paper on social learning in the Italian wall lizard, Podarcis sicula. This work formed part of Isabel Damas’ PhD thesis, and it was a huge effort! The question of what makes an invasive species successful compared to other species, that may fail to gain a foothold in a new location, . . . → Read More: Hot off the press! An invasive lizard species can learn from other species

What tree skinks know about change: A story in colour and shape

Note from Martin Whiting: This blog posts details a chapter of Birgit Szabo’s PhD recently published in Animal Behaviour and represents an enormous amount of work. Birgit did a 9-month cognition experiment, which could be the longest lizard cognition experiment thus far conducted. (Let us know if it isn’t!) The work is in collaboration . . . → Read More: What tree skinks know about change: A story in colour and shape

Come on a tour of The Lizard Lab

This is a behind-the-scenes video tour of the lab. We will show you our research facilities, some of our study animals, and our lizard enclosures. This video was entirely put together by Cooper Van De Wal. Cooper is a student at Macquarie and volunteers in the lab. He also has his own, highly successful . . . → Read More: Come on a tour of The Lizard Lab

Tree skinks go to school: The complexities of social learning in lizards

By: Fonti Kar & Julia Riley

“Never study an animal that is smarter than you” – Dr Martin Whiting

An adult female tree skink after performing the discrimination task we used to quantify their learning ability – she successfully removed the blue lid from this dish and accessed the food reward . . . → Read More: Tree skinks go to school: The complexities of social learning in lizards

Up for a fight or doing a runner, for a lizard it could be in their genes

Animals often instinctively assess their environment, and display innate behavioural responses. For example, many newly born reptiles and fish know how to respond to predators – knowing when to “fight” and when to “flee” – right after hatching out of their eggs! Innate behavioural responses, especially in times of peril, may be the difference . . . → Read More: Up for a fight or doing a runner, for a lizard it could be in their genes

The Bluetongue interviews

There was some interest in our recent paper on bluetongue lizards (blueys) and why they have this amazing blue tongue, which is actually a UV-blue tongue. (See our previous blog post.)

Here is an interview from ABC news:

Helen Shield interviews Martin Whiting on ABC radio, Hobart (nation wide). 11 June 2018. http://whitinglab.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/ABC_radio_11.6.2018-1.mp3

. . . → Read More: The Bluetongue interviews

Why blue tongue? A potential deimatic display has been uncovered in blue-tongue skinks

An enduring question among fans of blue-tongue lizards is why the blue tongue? Why have such an outrageously coloured tongue, given that the vast majority of lizards have a regular old pink tongue? Blueys (bluetongue skinks) are something of an Australian icon. They are part of Australian folklore and most Australians have encountered them . . . → Read More: Why blue tongue? A potential deimatic display has been uncovered in blue-tongue skinks

Dispatches from the field: new adventures with endangered crocodile lizards and oriental garden lizards

It’s been a very busy year, which explains why I am only now writing this blog post from my trip to China earlier this year (May-June). I had the amazing opportunity of seeing one of the world’s most endangered lizards—the crocodile lizard (Shinisaurus crocodilurus), in the wild, and working with one of the largest . . . → Read More: Dispatches from the field: new adventures with endangered crocodile lizards and oriental garden lizards