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Lincoln lecturer bags Ig Nobel prize for teaching a tortoise to yawn

By Lincolnshire Echo  |  Posted: October 05, 2011

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A TORTOISE was taught how to yawn on command by a University of Lincoln lecturer as part of a study delving into the minds of reptiles.

The unusual research was carried out by Dr Anna Wilkinson, a lecturer in animal behaviour who spent six months training red-footed tortoise Alexandra to yawn.

Her team then spent a further few months getting the tortoise to perform this party piece in front of other tortoises to see if the reptiles felt the urge to respond with a yawn of their own.

The unusual study, entitled No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise, has now bagged her an Ig Nobel physiology prize, which rewards research that first makes you laugh, then makes you think.

Dr Wilkinson, 30, of Lincoln said: "It's very important to get over the serious side of what we do. Training the tortoise to yawn was very hard. Most of our research is about reptile cognitive behaviour.

"Reptiles have traditionally been seen as these inert things that either adapt to their surroundings or die. But we have been looking at what stimuli they actually use to move around the world and having that knowledge will help with conservation and welfare efforts to protect them.

"This award will contribute significantly to raising the profile of research into tortoise and other reptile behaviour. This is very important as sharing these findings will help inform actions affecting the welfare of the animals and conservation of their habitats."

The training involved presenting the tortoise with a red square and giving it a reward when it opened its mouth.

During the six-month period, they got the tortoise to open its mouth further and further until its head was tilted back and it looked like it was yawning.

The research was done in collaboration with academics from the University of Vienna and Radboud University Nijmegen.

The awards, which were presented at Harvard University, USA.

The Ig Nobel awards are produced by the science humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), and co-sponsored by the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association, the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students, and the Harvard Computer Society.

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  • Tamsin101  |  October 08 2011, 7:02PM

    If you are only interested in mankind then I agree this research is of no interest to you. For those of us interested in animal behaviour, welfare and conservation however this research is interesting. Just because people are interested in something you are not doesnt mean they are not worthy of your respect. If you dont like lincoln uni then go elsewhere but dont be unnecessarily rude because frankly that wont get you anywhere.

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  • M_C_Donald  |  October 07 2011, 11:43PM

    "What DNA is shared by Tortoises and Man," Short simple answer, a lot.

  • ZH875  |  October 07 2011, 2:59PM

    The sooner they raise the price of Degree level education to £50,000 a year the better. What better way of proving how clever you are is there than teaching a tortoise to yawn.? The purpose of this is an absolute joke, and a waste of education. What DNA is shared by Tortoises and Man, what possible use is there knowing that Tortoises do not yawn in synchronisation?. I think that instead of proving what a good education you get from Lincoln University, all this highlights is that Lincoln University is a JOKE. A 2:2 from Lincoln means you can say "Would you like fries with that" in your new job, and a 2:1 lets you say "Would you like to go large?"

  • Tamsin101  |  October 07 2011, 12:22PM

    It is great to see research into an area where so little is known making this research highly valuable to our understanding of reptiles and their behaviours. As I understand it this was an experiment regarding cognition and the capacity for empathy in tortoises and was NOT an experiment with training methods! Nor did the experiment have anything to do with dogs!! I suggest reading the research paper before making critisms because most of the comments posted here make no sense in regards to this paper! The tortoises in question are also kept at a university in a department where one of the primary interests is in animal behaviour so all the needs of their ethogram are met and no tortoises were treated with any cruelty! Making judgements without knowledge has the capacity to make us all look like fools so perhaps do your research first.

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  • M_C_Donald  |  October 06 2011, 10:45AM

    "Only a pillock would compare training the two much diffrent species...." I am not going to dignify that with and explaination because you obviously lack the intelligence and imagination to understand it

  • Hakamar  |  October 05 2011, 6:00PM


  • M_C_Donald  |  October 05 2011, 2:16PM

    saddletramp2 I don't claim to be an authority on training animals, but going by your question, which I took to be rhetorical, indicates that you are not either. I have trained a few dogs in my time and it is my experience that they respond better to praise and reward. If you speak to anyone who trains animals professionally they would tell you it is about reinforcing desired behaviour by reward and not rewarding undesirable behaviour. Actually you already know that don't you? Just a question you understand.

  • saddletramp2  |  October 05 2011, 1:29PM

    M_C_Donald I was asking a question not stating a fact,And are you an authority on teaching dogs and tortoise's to do things on command or just guessing,Just another question you understand. ?

  • M_C_Donald  |  October 05 2011, 11:27AM

    It goes to show most of you have no idea about science, how and why research is conducted or the potential positive spinoffs can result from that research. In understand behaviour and functions of a reptile's brain, give us an understanding on how the primitive parts of our brains work. saddletramp2, you might teach a tortoise to yawn by sticking a object between it's jaws to force them apart. Personally I would observe the animal's behaviour and when is conducts abehaviour I want ,I reinforce that behaviour by giving it a command and a treat. It is the same as training a dog, it will associate a command with a behaviour and a treat. Experimentation on animals doesn't have to be cruel.

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  • Steve_Lincoln  |  October 05 2011, 10:55AM

    and that is what they will be paying £9000 to support next year ...