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Do Reptiles Feel Emotion?

Traditionally, emotions are only assigned to more highly evolved animals like mammals. But seeing the way a Burmese python drapes around its keeper, or a lizard’s closed eyes while being petted, the question arises: Do reptiles feel emotion?

Factors of Personality

Species: Generally a reptile’s species determines most of its disposition. For example, bearded dragons tend to be laid-back and enjoy human attention. Blue tongue skinks are inquisitive, energetic, and comfortable around humans. Ball pythons are nonaggressive to the point of being reluctant feeders.

Conditioning: Conditioning is the second largest contributor to reptile personality. The most common conditioned response is fear or aggression due to neglect. The reverse also holds true: reptiles who are well fed and handled often are more relaxed with their human.

Environment: Any reptile under environmental stress will come off as afraid or aggressive. Bad temperatures make them lethargic and prone to hiding. Inadequate shelter makes them insecure, always looking for a place to hide. Poor feeding may lead to snappiness.

Health: Sick reptiles often experience drastic personality changes when they become ill. An aggressive iguana may become laid back, a calm snake may become aggressive, or an energetic tortoise may become lethargic. The only way to find out for sure is to take him/her to your vet.

Emotions

Fear and Pleasure

Most people agree that if reptiles can feel emotion at all, fear and pleasure are where it starts. That is because these emotions are reinforced by instinct: fear involves the “fight or flight” instinct, while pleasure is associated with sex drive.

Fear shows in defensive responses. Aggressive species’ defensive responses are warnings, signalling annoyance. Passive species’ defensive responses are bluffs, signalling fear.

For example, blue tongue skinks pee, a common expression of fear in both reptiles and amphibians. When Hubby and I first got Hermes (Merauke blue tongue), we tried handling him and he made his displeasure known by spraying us with urine. Ew! But by far the most common expression of fear is running away.

Pleasure is a bit more complicated than fear, and it’s not all about mating opportunities. In my experience, reptile pleasure most often comes from human-reptile interaction, closely related to trust.

For example, bearded dragons will close their eyes and stay still when being stroked by a human. And once I observed a large red-tailed boa noticeably leaning into her keeper’s hand while she rubbed her head.

Irritation

Can a reptile feel irritation? Hop on Instagram and have a look: there are tons of pictures of bearded dragons giving their owners the infamous “stink eye” for waking them up or not filling their food dish. But are we just imagining it as part of the human need to bond?

The stink eye could be anthropomorphized, but other behaviors are unmistakable. A famous sign of irritation in iguanas is tail-whipping. Snakes prefer to hiss — once my Dumeril’s boa, Strider, found a forgotten plate of dinner and tried to eat a piece of curry chicken (please explain to me how that in any way resembles a rat). He hissed at me the whole way back to his bin.

Aggression

Aggression is fear taken to the next level, demonstrated by nearly every animal on earth — including reptiles. If running away, urinating, or musking doesn’t work, then the response switches from “flight” to “fight.”

Signs of impending attack are diverse and often specific to species.

  • The famous rattlesnake ‘rattle’
  • Blue tongue skinks gape and stick out their tongues
  • Frilled lizards fan out their trademark ‘frill’
  • Bearded dragons darken, flare their beards, and gape
  • Snakes coil into an ‘S’ shape

Aggressive snakes and lizards most commonly try to bite. Knowing the warning signals — and when to back off — is the first step in understanding your pet’s body language.

Trust/Confidence

sassy bearded dragon

She owns the place and she knows it.

In humans and advanced mammals, trust is like love. But reptiles lack the brain development for a complex emotion like love, so trust is the next best thing. And they do show it!

If a reptile, particularly a lizard — remember, snake brains are generally less developed than lizards’ — exhibits the following behaviors in your presence, they likely feel a bond of trust with you.

  • sleeping or closing eyes
  • staying near you, even if you’re not petting him/her
  • not squirming or clawing while being held
  • voluntarily climbing into your hand
  • head bobbing

One of our bearded dragons, Deliora, sometimes head-bobs at me when she’s in a good mood. Head bobbing, as you may remember from my article on bearded dragon handling and body language, is a sign of confidence.

Loneliness

Can reptiles feel loneliness? Do they suffer without company?

… Yes and no. It’s complicated.

Do reptiles get lonely? It depends on the reptile. Most snakes don’t live in groups in the wild, and if they encounter another snake outside of breeding season, they ignore it. Most lizards (like bearded dragons, monitor lizards, and leopard geckos) are also solitary. But others, (like mourning geckos, iguanas, and giant girdled lizards) thrive in groups.

Do they suffer without company? It appears so. An article, “Lizards Need Social Lives Too,” argues that reptiles appear to be happier and have better mental health when they are raised with regular social interaction. Reptiles — especially lizards — who get little to no human attention often become defensive and fail to thrive. Some iguanas have been known to bond with one, maybe two humans, and suffer extremely if abandoned.

Conclusion: Can reptiles feel emotion?

Yes! Reptiles feel emotion much more than we give them credit for. Just make sure to take the natural instincts and behaviors of your individual reptile’s species into account, and avoid the pitfalls of anthropomorphism.

What are the behaviors that make your relationship with your snake or lizard unique? Tell us in the comments!

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7 Comments

  1. Please read the entire article before making assumptions or passing judgement. Stopping reading as soon as they see something they disagree with is a common mistake that many people make, and by failing to read the piece in full, they usually end up missing out on what the article is trying to communicate, as each paragraph and section builds upon the previous. As stated in the article in question, “These statements are extremely generalized, and the above is far from a comprehensive list.” I recognize that there are many species of reptiles that are genuinely social, and many others that have documented social behaviors. However, assuming that all reptiles are social, and in the same way that humans or dogs are, is a common mistake made by many pet owners, and the point that I am addressing in their particular piece.

  2. I hate to say it but I stopped reading when I saw the reptile generalizations including anti social. I highly suggest you read through at least the first few links I provided, indicating reptiles are much more social than previously thought. Complex social behaviors have been observed across multiple species of reptiles where earlier assumptions of antisocial behavior prevailed for decades. This bias and assumption simply dictated there was no point in observing, it’s something everyone just ‘knew’ but as the next generation got more curious the scientific method prevailed. Observation and evidence have yielded results that cannot be argued. Science is science. Sadly, the idea of the antisocial reptile has tragic consequences allowing people to keep and do things to reptiles without the associated guilt.

    Hey, people once thought a whale was just a big fish. But the next generation produced Blackfish, highlighting the mother whale making long range calls looking for her baby (sold to another facility), or the pod learning to outsmart boats to protect their babies- only to have humans use helicopters to steal them anyway.

    Obviously, you love reptiles, so you aren’t in that category. But I’d love to see some basic corrections made to the categorizations which – as one study linked previously noted- “perpetuates this erroneous belief”

  3. You make good points, PersonalBiasAffectsAnimalsToo!. And you’re right, this article could definitely use an update, as it was originally published back in 2015 and my own understanding of reptiles has developed significantly since then. Until I get around to updating/rewriting this piece, you may be interested in reading one of my most recent pieces, Why Anthropomorphism May Be the Key to Better Reptile Husbandry.

  4. This article is based on very old science, Reptiles do have emotion “beyond instinct and habit”, including love and have been observed in complex social behaviors including parenting.

    As so many articles are, this error likely stems from the influence of personal bias when performing research. Let’s take a look at common terms one might use. For example, a search of Google for ’reptiles no emotion’ yields results which would seem to confirm the overall arc of this article. HOWEVER, a google search for ’reptiles complex social behavior and emotion’ yields published results from multiple studies and other scientific articles which disprove this notion. Links below comments for examples, one of which plainly argues against the dichotomy which “perpetuates this erroneous belief”

    See quote below:
    “The most often referenced limitations associated with the phrase “reptile brain” originated from comments made by Carl Sagan during an episode of his popular televised series “Cosmos” [in which he discussed the *human* brain]. This term [Reptile Brain] has been used to describe functions limited to meeting basic needs for some time and it is clear that the generation of children growing up during the height of Sagan’s popularity continue to be influenced[largely positively] by it.”

    https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0168159113001214

    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/271863113_Breaking_the_Social-Non-social_Dichotomy_A_Role_for_Reptiles_in_Vertebrate_Social_Behavior_Research

    https://jonlieffmd.com/blog/lizards-arent-supposed-to-be-this-smart

    https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2016/03/160310-rattlesnakes-roundup-texas-animals-killing/

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/animal-emotions/201303/the-emotional-lives-reptiles-stress-and-welfare?amp

    https://watermark.silverchair.com/17-1-177.pdf?token=AQECAHi208BE49Ooan9kkhW_Ercy7Dm3ZL_9Cf3qfKAc485ysgAAAlgwggJUBgkqhkiG9w0BBwagggJFMIICQQIBADCCAjoGCSqGSIb3DQEHATAeBglghkgBZQMEAS4wEQQMuErPL5QtYLZCdkYbAgEQgIICC-_i7t2ITxP-n2QxKeZfbpo3_u-JMOKS4pO9RwYmbIvGAfdTlLIa14FlRTa_1eJNnWWWEqHKPrK_dQVozY1ZnFRTJkBfyYy-kryjhRgn-bn_PjYnwfDeapwsmvNEuU70ROjxLyh7oE4OmuFhviNGeHjV1zIrfF9DPVJ-JdbBGUvTriHI-YILiblUjeGfcw84vTl9OGQQ3VoQz6ojMVKHRC9m2WB4Dfm4yIp8B0vsl5jwAkkG0n2mmhHUbRWynvjyEDP0gxIMTmZijC5cqoZMxCDQm9mDR_07PCgKFoVOqFY4HPVpQEeIRj3eOjMXbg2nsoTaITAetSMRQnTpATfuJZA3oH0aBbnV4_4S1eTW-OzNt0LY4SbsJyWX9yFHitmfcZXFhJhlP_SHDKSKB49oqAVoawkXilJI_qVFPm2CIHGr_LF1Jk6RdhNnEtiwAcsFywmtlyv1M5XnhUm9Y55vG8n5dK1XBKTfFIU_9bFLT7k15hdXdbL62TkZ-lFiMCbYWwnzN6zz6DT_vWHWrv3WhnpBsP2136GyFy8Pb2niiOjbMq4COxIGgf2ohObyYmCaFHNTF2CHhqmVUJms4rni5u3lGSTkOkgL69NTRnsXe_C7uDthKNL_prrMpjUQ-fXYCZa4oXpj2o46tBZC1WyIweKy3wcXb0BcRGWsL2wNZ0MfiFX-1mpfs3mJWB0

    Older article opens with Carl Sagan’s quote:
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4406946/

  5. I once saved a lizard from a glue trap it was stuck in. The whole process must have taken me a little over an hour to successfully remove without harm and with its front and rear fingers intact; although some were bent pretty badly and some glue did remained, but I’ve always wondered if it will remember me as the merciful giant that gave it another chance at life.

  6. Yup, reptiles can and do recognize the people who take care of them!

  7. I know this is an old post, but I am glad I found it! I have a ball python that seems to prefer me over others in my household. I often wondered why that was. I do feed it the most, and handle it the most. I tend to agree with your assessment of ‘trust.’ Either way, thanks again for this article!

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