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Reptiles are Highly Emotional, Contrary to Their Cold Reputation

Reptiles have a reputation as cold, emotionless creatures. Experts say countering this myth could help protect them from habitat loss.

By Lily Carey
Apr 8, 2024 3:00 PM
Green lizard on branch, green lizard sunbathing on branch, green lizard climb on wood, Jubata lizard
(Credit: Kurit afshen/Shutterstock)


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When you hear the words “reptilian” or “cold-blooded”, the first thing that comes to might be a miserly politician or an uncaring boss — in other words, probably not an actual crocodile or lizard. That’s because for decades, reptiles have been characterized as cold, unfeeling, and even primitive creatures.  

But scientists agree that reptiles aren’t emotionless — they’re misunderstood. Extensive research has shown that reptiles experience a wide range of emotions, and that they’re highly socially complex animals. 

Yet despite a wealth of evidence demonstrating reptiles’ emotional capacity, they’ve retained a reputation for being as cold-blooded emotionally as they are internally. These misconceptions can lead to a lack of awareness for reptiles’ needs in captivity and in the wild, advocates say.  

“They don't follow the same sort of rules that birds or mammals follow, and so we understand them a lot less,” says conservationist JJ Apodaca, executive director of the Amphibian and Reptile Conservancy. “That just leads to us often leaving them out of important policy or conservation efforts.” 

As more and more reptilian species are threatened by habitat loss, scientists and conservationists say that recognizing reptiles’ capacity for emotion can help pet owners and policymakers alike take better care of them. 

Debunking the 'Lizard Brain' Myth

Anxiety, stress, excitement, fear, frustration, pain, and suffering — all of these are emotions that humans might feel on a daily basis, and scientists have repeatedly found that reptiles experience those things, too, per a 2019 review of literature published in the journal Animals.  

That growing body of work pushes back on the widely accepted notion that reptiles only have the capacity for survival instincts, and not for emotional intelligence. But despite immense scientific support for the notion that these scaly vertebrates possess hidden inner depths, they’re still widely viewed as emotionless. 

This myth largely stems from the concept of the “lizard brain”. Popularized in the 1970s by astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan, the term refers to the parts of the human brain that we use for survival instincts. According to this myth, the human brain evolved over time by adding progressively more sophisticated structures to this rudimentary “lizard brain,” including the limbic system, which is the source of our emotions. 

Because reptiles are our evolutionary predecessors, some researchers long believed that this instinctual part of the brain was the only part that originated with our scaly ancestors — and that without human-like brain structures, reptiles didn’t have the capacity for emotions at all.  

Read More: Evolutionary Insight: Inside the Brains of Reptiles and Amphibians

Do Reptiles Have Emotions?

Still, scientists have consistently disproven this theory throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The 2019 review, which analyzed a cross-section of scientific literature on reptile sentience conducted between 1999 and 2018, found 37 studies that showed evidence of reptiles’ capacity to feel.  

One of these studies, for instance, found that handling lizards caused an increase in their heart rate, indicating an emotional response. Another found that red-footed tortoises exhibited anxiety-like behavior when placed in a new environment. 

Other research has focused on social behavior in reptiles, both in captivity and in the wild. In The Secret Social Lives of Reptiles, a book on reptile socialization published in 2021, researchers detail how reptiles can show wide variations in social behavior between different species.

While they may not be outwardly expressive in the same way that humans or other mammals are, reptiles are indeed highly social animals, and have developed complex rituals for parental care, courtship, and nesting.   

Read More: Reptiles And Amphibians Could Hold The Secret To Longevity

Exploring How Lizards Communicate

Even as research on reptile socialization continues to build, the stereotypes around reptilian emotions have persisted to this day. 

Scientists say part of this is simply because reptiles show their emotions differently than humans. In a 2021 study published in the journal Integrative and Comparative Biology, researchers found that lizards emit chemicals to communicate with each other, meaning they’re much harder to read than their mammalian counterparts.   

Reptiles are also relatively secretive, according to Apodaca, which can make them hard to study. Though they can be highly social, some species of reptiles are known to “disappear for months at a time,” he says, which can lead to difficulties in collecting data and kickstarting conservation efforts. 

Read More: Evolutionary Insight: Inside the Brains of Reptiles and Amphibians

Why Humans Relate to Some Animals More Than Others

Psychological studies show that lack of awareness about animal emotions, in general, also plays a major role in our misconceptions. The 2019 literature review found that humans are more likely to empathize with animals that share physical and emotional characteristics with us, which is why many people might have a deeper understanding of dogs and cats than of lizards and snakes. 

What’s more, in a study published in Applied Animal Behavioral Science in 2023, researchers found that reptile owners were more likely to rate reptiles’ cognitive abilities highly than non-owners. Nonetheless, both groups still said that reptiles had limited emotional capacity. 

“They don't have the broad sort of support that mammals do, or the ‘cute and fuzzies’”, Apodaca says. “It's the same sort of thing that drives reptiles to be left out of a lot of these policies.” 

Read More: 7 of the Cutest Snakes That May Slither Their Way Into Your Heart

The Growing Need for Reptile Conservation

Today, 21 percent of reptile species are considered endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. And recently, scientists found that desert-dwelling reptiles are particularly vulnerable in the face of extreme heat, per a study published in 2024 in the Journal of Arid Environments.

But our tendency to dismiss reptiles isn’t just psychological — for decades, it’s impacted the level of habitat protections they’re afforded in the United States. 

“Amphibians and reptiles are two of the most endangered groups in the world, but their listing [in the U.S. Endangered Species Act] lags way behind that of mammals and birds,” Apodaca says. “Some of that’s because of advocacy, but also because of the data that's available.”  

Apodaca says he’s noticed gaps in species recovery funding for reptiles versus mammals, birds and fish.  However, he’s also noticed a huge increase in awareness of reptiles’ conservation needs — a development which could prove crucial to combatting habitat loss in the coming years. 

“We're learning more and more about the behavior of reptiles,” Apodaca says. “They're more complex, and they feel more, and they're smarter than we ever thought.” 

Read More: What Is So Interesting About the Komodo Dragon?

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