Are lizards capable of inhibitory control? Performance on a semi-transparent version of the cylinder task in five species of Australian skinks

Birgit Szabo*, Sebastian Hoefer, Martin J. Whiting

*Corresponding author for this work

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Inhibitory control, the inhibition of prepotent actions, is essential for higher-order cognitive processes such as planning, reasoning, and self-regulation. Individuals and species differ in inhibitory control. Identifying what influences inhibitory control ability within and between species is key to understanding how it evolved. We compared performance in the cylinder task across five lizard species: tree skinks (Egernia striolata), gidgee skinks (Egernia stokesii), eastern blue-tongue skinks (Tiliqua s. scincoides), sleepy lizards (Tiliqua r. asper), and eastern water skinks (Eulamprus quoyii). In our task, animals had to inhibit the prepotent motor response of directly approaching a reward placed within a semi-transparent mesh cylinder and instead reach in through the side openings. Additionally, in three lizard species, we compared performance in the cylinder task to reversal learning to determine the task specificity of inhibitory ability. Within species, neither sex, origin, body condition, neophobia, nor pre-experience with other cognitive tests affected individual performance. Species differed in motor response inhibition: Blue-tongue skinks made fewer contacts with the semi-transparent cylinder wall than all other species. Blue-tongue skinks also had lower body condition than the other species which suggest motivation as the underlying cause for species differences in task performance. Moreover, we found no correlation between inhibitory ability across different experiments. This is the first study comparing cylinder task performance among lizard species. Given that inhibitory control is probably widespread in lizards, motor response inhibition as exercised in the cylinder task appears to have a long evolutionary history and is likely fundamental to survival and fitness.
Original languageEnglish
Article number118
Number of pages15
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2020

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2020. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • Cognition
  • Executive functions
  • Response inhibition
  • Non-avian reptile
  • Squamate reptile


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