Befuddled, rocked and shocked by mighty skink skirmish makes me ponder cold-blooded cognition.
“Cold-blooded cognition”. What do you know of it? I have read that cold-blooded cognition is what comparative psychologists refer to as the study of cognition or intelligence in reptiles. What I know of it, though, is almost nothing. Two recent encounters with reptiles made me ponder what goes on in those differently wired, cold-blooded minds.
The other day, I observed an Eastern fence lizard. He was on the gate post. When my friend pointed him out to me, we leaned in for a look. He widened his stance, cocked his head and stared back at us. I felt as we were contemplating him he was contemplating us back. I wondered what he was thinking. I assumed he was considering if we were a threat or not and what he ought to do next. I did feel as though I was seeing some sort of intelligence shinning in his beady, little eye. We left and he stayed put on the gate post.
I wondered about the life of being cold-blooded and what it really consisted of in terms of intelligence and emotions. We use the word cold-blooded to denote being void of emotions. I think we got it from reptiles and amphibians, whom we call cold-blooded because they do not regulate a constant warm body temperature. I think we have assumed till fairly recently that most reptiles and amphibians live with a paucity of thoughts and emotions.
The behavior my friend Bernie and I witnessed between two broadheaded skinks recently did feel rather sang-froid. We saw the two approaching one another. We watched to see how this would go. I, being primarily a horse and dog person, assumed they would sniff noses and either nip and run from one another, mate or just go their separate ways after an identification had been made.
No, that's not what happened. Upon getting nose to nose, one reached out, fast as lightening, and put the head of the other one as far into his mouth as he could and clamped down. Then he bent his head back and lifted the other one, all but one foot, off the ground. “Oh, no.” I said to Bernie. I was sure I was about to see something not cool...a death seemed imminent.
It is especially awful to watch an animal kill another one of roughly the same size, as it usually means a slow death with prolonged violence. But almost as quickly as I muttered “Oh, no.”, the larger skink let go of the smaller one's head.
“Oh, great,” I thought. “Run little buddy. Get out of there quick. Your luck is with you today.” How wrong I was. How little I know of skink behavior. Instead of scurrying away while he had the chance, the smaller skink made a move quick as lightning. Next I knew, he had as much of the head of the bigger skink in his jaws as he could fit and was hanging on tight. He did not manage the body lift the bigger one had done. Then, with no struggle or apparent moves from the bigger skink, he just let go. The skinks took two steps away from each other, eyed one another a final time and just ambled off.
I wondered if what Bernie and I had seen was a way that male skinks demonstrate their strength to one another, a way for these male skinks to sort rank. Perhaps they are not really trying to hurt each other so much as to sort out who rules a territory or gets a female without having to fight to the death. It's kind of like a skink sumo wrestling match in which the winner takes the spoils.
I do not know skink behavior. I assumed it was not lack of intelligence that caused the small skink to attack the large one instead of running off when he had the chance. I decided to read up on what is being learned in the field of cold-blooded cognition. I found that studies have proved that reptiles are capable of learning new things, navigating mazes and learning by watching others.
In one study, researchers put a red-footed turtle on one side of a fence and a strawberry treat on the other side. The turtle marched against the fence as if on a treadmill. The researchers declared a certain amount of inept behavior. Then they let that same turtle watch one that knew to walk around the fence for the strawberry. Upon watching the other one do it, the turtle learned and walked around the fence, too.
Some times on a sunny, cool day when I jog by the windows of a gym, I wonder why I don't see any one get off the treadmills and follow me. Would a turtle, if he could, ever wonder what a person understands? Was that what the fence lizard was cocking his head at me for?