This culture landmark provides a general overview of Charles Henry Turner, an African-American zoologist who made groundbreaking discoveries in animal behaviour.

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Charles Henry Turner

Charles Henry Turner was an African American scientist interested in the comparative analysis of behavior. He made fundamental contributions in the areas of vertebrate and invertebrate morphology, naturalistic observation, apparatus design, death feigning, and invertebrate learning. He was an early leader in the civil rights movement, contributing several seminal papers on race relations.

Turner received the majority of his education in Cincinnati, Ohio. He earned both his BS and MS degrees in 1891 and 1892, respectively, under the direction of his mentor Clarence L. Herrick of the University of Cincinnati. Turner earned his PhD in zoology, magna cum laude, at the University of Chicago in 1907.

Turner became a science teacher at Sumner High School in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1908, where he remained until his retirement precipitated by illness in 1922.

He died of myocarditis in the home of the younger of his two sons in 1923.


Charles Henry Turner

Charles Henry Turner (1867-1923).
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Check out these blue death-feigning beetles in action at the Cincinnati Zoo (activate subtitles if you need them).

Turner's circling

Turner's circling.
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Turner published at least seventy-one papers, a number made more remarkable because he had no formal laboratory resources, no access to research libraries, no undergraduate or graduate students, and no university appointment. Turner's work was favorably recognized by leaders of the animal behavior movement and by leaders of the civil rights movement. In 1910, the French naturalist Victor Cornetz named the exploratory circling movements of ants “tournoiement de Turner” (Turner’s circling).

Although Turner had no access to university libraries or laboratories, he managed to conduct research and published at least seventy-one research papers.

Turner began his career by continuing a line of research begun by his mentor. He contributed original articles on the comparative anatomy of the pigeon brain, directly compared the brains of arthropods and annelids, and studied the mushroom bodies of crayfish. His work with pigeons is a fine example of the skills in dissection, histology, observation, drawing, and analysis that were to characterize his career. In addition to the morphological contributions, the pigeon work contains several unique contributions, including the description of a new tool to handle delicate tissue, the development of a new stain, and the suggestion that the compactness of the avian brain can be used as a taxonomic indicator. This work was even more remarkable because he did it while an undergraduate in 1891.


Sumner School

Sumner School Saint Louis.
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Cornetz's book

Victor Cornetz on ant exploration.
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Pigeon brain

Pigeon brain.
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Insect navigation

A second line of research attempted to answer the question of how insects navigate. There were several competing theories suggesting insects navigate by a homing instinct, tropism, limited learning ability, or higher intelligence. He designed an elaborate maze for ants, and using controls now known to be important in excluding alternative explanations (such as using heat filters with a light stimulus) and employing replicates of his observations, Turner demonstrated that ants navigate not by tropism or instinct but by using cues presented in the environment and by using higher intelligence. This work was also unique because it was among the first to investigate the influence of sex and age differences. Turner extended his navigation work to other invertebrates, including honey bees, wasps, and caterpillars.

Turner was the first African American to receive a graduate degree from the University of Cincinnati (M.S. in biology), and to earn a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Chicago

Honey bee

Honey bee
Honey bees can learn color and pattern discriminations.
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1. Where did Turner study?

2. What subject did he earn his PhD in?

3. What university did he work for as a teacher?

Higher intelligence

His work on navigation suggested that insects possess “higher intelligence” or what we now call learning. Turner embarked on an ambitious research program investigating learning in a wide range of invertebrates. This required him to construct various apparatuses for both laboratory work and fieldwork. His major contributions include the first conclusive demonstrations that honey bees learn color and pattern discriminations, that cockroaches learn in a variety of situations, and that learning survives molting. Of particular interest are his experiments on the ability of moths to hear sound. The initial paper provided the first data that moths can hear and the second provided what might very well be the first demonstration of Pavlovian conditioning in an insect.

Pavlovian conditioning, is a type of learning which occurs because of the subject's instinctive responses, as opposed to operant conditioning, which is related to the intentional actions of the subject.

4. Why did he stop teaching?

5. Why is his study on pigeons so significant?

6. What is Turner's Circling?

7. Who gave the name to this study?

8. Give examples of invertebrate higher intelligence or learning.

9. What is molting?

10. What is Pavlovian conditioning?

11. What is Operant conditioning?


Cocroaches can learn in a variety of situations.
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Emperor moth

Emperor Moth
Moths can hear.
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Cicada molting

Cicada molting. Learning survives molting.
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12. What happened when he studied the microorganisms of Cincinnati?

13. According to Turner, how could race problems be solved?

14. How many research papers did he publish?

15. Why is this number so significant?

16. Apart from science, what other interests did he have in life that made him a referent too?

Behavioral studies

Behavioral description was a recurrent interest of Turner. He provided descriptions of a wide variety of invertebrates, including the microorganisms of Cincinnati, where he discovered a new species.

Turner maintained a lifelong interest in civil rights. He argued that prejudice can be studied through the science of comparative psychology and proposed that only through education can problems between the races be resolved.

Adapted from “Turner, Charles Henry.” Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 2003.
Web. 29 June 2016.

17. How and where did he die?

18. What is a death-feigning animal?


1. He earned his BS and Ms at the University of Cincinnaty, and his PhD at the University of Chicago.
2. Zoology.
3. None. He never worked at university level.
4. Because he fell ill.
5. Because he was still an undergraduate when he carried them out.
6. Ants navigate not by tropism or instinct but by using cues presented in the environment and by using higher intelligence.

7. The French scientist Victor Cornetz.
8. Honey bees can learn color and pattern discriminations, moths can hear, and learning survives molting.
9. Shedding old feathers, hair, or skin to make way for a new growth.
10. Pavlovian conditioning is a type of learning based on instinctive responses. 11. Operant conditioning is a type of learning that requires intentional actions.
12. He discovered a new species.

13. Educating people.
14. Seventy-one.
15. Because he did not have access to university libraries or laboratories.
16. He was an advocate of civil rights.
17. He died from myocarditis, at his youngest son's house.
18. An animal that pretends to be dead so that predators will not attack him.


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