A Huntington High School sophomore science research team duo is studying the learning ability of reptiles. Nicolas DiPietro and Felipe Villanueva are collaborating on a project that seeks to better understand reptilian intelligence.
“For years, reptiles have been seen as far inferior to their descendant’s mammals and birds when it comes to intelligence,” states the duo’s project abstract. “But recent studies have shown that reptiles for the longest time have been given the wrong tests and are possibly a lot smarter than we have given them credit for. Our personal experience with reptiles and knowledge of the evolution of reptiles, mammals and birds and how they are connected believe the reptilian brain isn’t that inferior to mammals and our scaly friends are much smarter than we give them credit for.”
To test their theory on reptilian intelligence the research team plans to study reptiles’ ability to learn. “We will be using five different tests; a radial arm maze, basic maze, puzzle box, hinged door and cups with food under them to test for the ability to learn of each animal participating in the study,” according to the project abstract. “Now the big question: Which reptile should be used to collect data on the true potential of reptilian brains and that narrows it down to the two smartest families of reptiles; crocodilians and the monitor lizards.”
Due to their very nature and for obvious reasons crocodiles were left out of the study, but Messrs. DiPietro and Villanueva were able to use lizards as test subjects.
“Due to their general demeanor, temper, size and husbandry, the best reptile to test for the true extent of reptile intelligence turned out to be an Ackie red monitor lizard,” states the project abstract. “With this reptile, we can attempt to now prove that reptiles are much smarter than we give them credit for and they have advanced neurological capabilities and have the ability to learn complex things.”
A mammal was chosen for use as a comparison to the lizard to determine if a reptile can “compete” with a mammal’s brain. “The role fell onto a rat due to its high intelligence and the ease of use in experiments like this one,” according to the abstract. “Together our monitor lizard and rat will help to prove whether or not science was right or wrong in concluding reptiles have inferior brains to mammals. This research will also help prove if these new theories of reptiles being much smarter than we thought and some reptiles having the ability to rival birds and mammals is true or not.”
Nicolas DiPietro simply loves animals. “My entire life has been filled with animals and nature as a whole, from fishing many lakes and different bodies of water to owning a massive collection of pets,” the teenager said. “I am an outdoors man and always enjoy a great hike, a leisurely run or a day out fishing. I am a massive sci-fi fan from “Star Wars” to “Jurassic Park” and similar movies in general. But the main aspect of my personality is my love for animals.”
Mr. DiPietro currently own three cats, two bearded dragons, a leopard gecko, four fire bellied toads, tokay gecko and over fifty freshwater fish ranging from small neon tetras and German blue ram cichlids to a massive jaguar cichlid and electric blue Jack Dempsey cichlid.
“I’ve always been cited for my wealth of knowledge of animals both past and present and joked with my friends about me knowing random animal facts like the higher classification of the modern Felidae going back for the past 11 million years. I don’t just love and know about animals, I also wish to make them the subject of my career and I want to work for the preservation of our natural world and more particularly in big cat conservation and wildlife research. But my newest pet, an Ackie red monitor lizard by the name of Delta, is the reason I am writing this right now.”
Felipe Villanueva is a big fan of science. “Ever since I was a kid, science has influenced and inspired me in many ways from animals to basic lab experiments,” the sophomore said. “It was my curiosity to know more that drives my passion to learn more in the field of science.”
Like any teenager, Mr. Villanueva enjoys spending time with his friends. He plays basketball and works out whenever he can. He’s a great student, too.
“The reason I decided to join Nicolas on this project was to get a good perspective on animal intelligence,” Mr. Villanueva said. “Normally we see our pets as companions and never really acknowledge how smart they can be and the important traits that make them unique. Therefore, from this research project I hope to get a better understanding on how animals use their brains to complete tasks.”
Mr. Villanueva is trying to gain exposure to as many different areas of science as possible. “I hope to pick out the right branch when it comes to choosing a professional career,” he said. “As of right now, I am honored to be given the opportunity to work with such fascinating creatures. This is our first year in the science research course and we are loving it so far. I strongly encourage anyone who loves science to take Science Research as it practically gives you the freedom to research anything you are interested in learning more about.”