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How Smart Are Tegus? Understanding Tegu Intelligence

tegu intelligence

Guest Post by Mike Valverde

If you’re looking into keeping a pet reptile, there are a wide range of choices available. Although small geckos and bearded dragons are among the most popular, there’s such a fantastic variety of creatures available for companionship aside from them. In fact, some of the more “advanced” reptiles that can be kept as pets can even challenge our perceptions of animals and their cognitive abilities.

Speaking of cognitive abilities, one of the largest reptile species commonly kept as pets — tegus — are known for being smart. But why is this the case? Keep reading to learn more about tegu intelligence and why this makes them such great pets!

The Science Behind Tegu Intelligence

Here’s a quick clarification on what I mean by tegu intelligence:

When evaluating the intelligence of a lizard, you can’t just give one an IQ test like you would with a human. Instead, herpetologists and other researchers have conducted studies to evaluate the cognitive ability of tegus. Although cognitive ability is a different concept from intelligence, it’s what most people are referring to when they say that a tegu is “smart” or “intelligent.” Essentially, it’s a more objective and scientifically sound way of determining how capable different creatures are at completing mental tasks.

Do Tegus Dream?

tegu intelligence

An Argentine black and white tegu found in Florida. Photo taken by pythonbob and uploaded to iNaturalist.

One example of tegu lizards’ impressive cognitive ability can be seen when observing their sleeping habits. One study published by PLOS Biology in 2018 found that both bearded dragons and tegus were capable of Rapid Eye Movement sleep, also known as REM sleep. This is an advanced form of sleep that can be found in mammals such as humans, as well as cats, rats, and some birds. 

Since REM sleep is associated with dreaming in humans, it’s possible that it can cause dreams for other creatures as well— which has been suggested in many studies of animals with REM capabilities. Because of this, there’s a very real possibility that tegus are capable of dreaming, which is a strong indicator of serious brainpower!

Can Tegus Regulate Body Heat?

The subject of instinct vs. intelligence is complicated and has been fiercely debated for centuries. It’s been discussed in the context of science, philosophy, and even religion. From the perspective of a scientist, instinct is definitely related to cognitive ability. However, it is unclear whether strong instincts mean an animal is intelligent. That being said, instinctual behavior can be as impressive as intelligence in a few instances— like how tegus regulate their temperature during mating season.

As you likely already know, reptiles are ectothermic, which means they are unable to internally regulate their temperature. (This has been referred to as “cold-blooded,” which is an inaccurate term that should honestly be retired!) However, a 2016 research article published in the journal Science Advances found that tegus are actually capable of raising their internal temperature by up to ten degrees Celsius during their mating period. This makes them unique among nearly every other species of lizards!

Because of these fascinating behaviors — both derived from instincts and intelligence — tegus are a popular subject for scientists. It’s why we have an extremely detailed map of the Argentine black and white tegu’s genome. 

But what does any of this mean for the average pet owner? Keep reading to find out!

Training Tegus

Because of their impressive cognitive abilities, one of the most interesting aspects of tegu care is the ability to train your tegu. Much like dogs and cats (and unlike hognose snakes), these extraordinary lizards can be conditioned to perform certain behaviors through the power of positive reinforcement.

One common and effective way tegu owners like to train their pets is through the use of a clicker. This technique is based on the famous psychological experiment by Ivan Pavlov, where he trained a dog to associate the sound of a bell with food. To do this, you’ll need an inexpensive clicker either online or at your local pet store. From there, use the clicker whenever you give your tegu a treat— we recommend using bits of ground feed from our Tegu Hatchling Bundle for maximum effectiveness and nutrition.

Once you’ve developed a relationship between the clicker and pleasure (receiving food) in your tegu’s mind, you can start teaching it to perform different behaviors. Here are some things that pet owners have trained their tegus to do in this way:

  • Go to the bathroom in a particular spot (potty training)
  • Walk towards a particular spot and stay there (target training)
  • Wear a harness and walk next to you
  • Recognize its name and come when called

This next point is very important:

Before trying to train your tegu with some of these advanced tasks, keep in mind that you’ll need to spend a long time establishing a safe and friendly relationship with him or her. Tegus From Around The World has an excellent guide with more tips on taming tegus.

I hope this information has helped you realize just how special these one-of-a-kind creatures really are. Thanks for reading!


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