Acquisition of a Learned Operant and Critical Flicker-Fusion Rate in the Tuatara (Sphenodon spp.)
Scientific investigation of the sensory world and behavior of the tuatara is limited. This study incorporates both ecological and psychological perspectives to test learning and visual perception using a novel operant technique and flicker-fusion rates to measure visual discrimination in tuatara. We posed four main questions: (1) can a reliable method examine learning and visual perception in tuatara?, (2) what is the critical flicker-fusion (CFF) rates for tuatara and how does it relate to motion detection ability?, (3) can stimulus control be transferred to a Y-maze from an open field arena?, and (4) what are the implications for behavioral ecology, conservation, and species welfare? Tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus) were trained using an operant conditioning procedure with food reinforcement to respond to discriminative stimuli (S+) of various flicker-fusion rates, and ignore a non-discriminative stimulus (S-). Tuatara discriminated CFF rates between 2.65-45.61 Hz, but not at 65.09 Hz. The upper threshold between 45.61-65.09 Hz is comparable to other mammalian, avian, and herpetological species. Tuatara demonstrated a learning capacity for acquisition of an operant task as well as cognitive development for learning and memory strategies. Visual discrimination is important to tuatara and may facilitate behavioral responses to many context-dependent ecological processes (i.e., predator/prey/kin recognition, mate selection, environmental discrimination, optimal foraging strategies, and communication). By understanding the importance of visual stimuli, the study provides a better perspective of the tuatara natural sensory world. Additionally, a reliable method was established that can be used for more comprehensive psychophysical experiments to further access visual perception and learning in all reptiles, with the potential to examine other sensory mechanisms such as audition, chemoreception, and tactility.