The Daily Post : Weathered

I haven’t tried the Daily Post in a number of years, but I was inspired by today’s theme: weathered. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t put a zookeeper slant on it, though, would I?

Riverbanks Zoo has a herd of Galapagos Tortoises. We have Aldabra Tortoises at our zoo. These two species are a fascinating example of convergent evolution – animals that develop similar traits, but in different parts of the world. Galapagos Tortoises are found off the coast of Ecuador in South America, and Aldabs are found off the east coast of Africa in the Seychelles. They last shared a common ancestor about 20 million years ago. But they are so similar.

Here’s an Aldabra Giant Tortoise:

Big Al and his watermelon that was donated by a child. If I cut up the watermelon, it’s gone in 10 minutes. A whole watermelon gets shoved around for 5 hours.

Galapagos Tortoise in Riverbanks Zoo, SC

There are minor differences. Galapagos tortoises can get up to about 600lbs, depending on the subspecies, whereas Aldabs top out typically at 350. Though Big Al is a plus-sized model. He’s 525lbs. Galaps typically lack the little scale on their shell behind their neck, called a nuchal scute. Their shells vary, and some have really high arches at their necks to allow them to reach taller shrubs. And Galaps have a very round head by comparison to Aldabs, but you have to really know them to notice. My favorite difference is that Aldabs stretch out their necks to be scratched, while Galaps look straight up. ADORABLE!

The thing about both species is, they can live for, like, ever. Not really. Eventually they peter out, but they live a very, very long time. One animal died in 2006, and there were records on it going back 252 years, and it was a wild-caught animal. The oldest confirmed tortoise was 189 years old. That’s a lot of wear and tear.

Time takes its toll on all of us, tortoises included.

It’s like looking into the face of a dinosaur. Weathered.

Time, wind, and water wear us down. The scales on this Galapagos tortoise girl’s neck have worn smooth with time. Her shell, too, sports that lived-in look. She had a nice hole in her carapace (top shell) that is now a cozy home to a spider.

See the spider web? It was nice and fresh. The damage is purely cosmetic. Shells are tough!

She looks pretty good for her age, don’t you think? Just imagine, a century ago, she looked more like this:

Juvenile Galapagos Tortoise

This tortoise is under six months old, all shiny and pretty and new. There are plenty of growth rings in her shell, too. They are like trees. As they grow, they get new rings. The center of the ring is essentially dead shell, like our hair or fingernails, and the rings are fresh growth. This little baby is all bright-eyed and represents the future of her species.

And this girl? She’s bursting with history.

If this girl could talk…

What do you think of when you hear the word “weathered?” Show us your best photos. Join this week’s Daily Post.


Farewell To An Icon

Today is a bit of a departure from my usual posts.  Hang with me. I’ll be back to silliness in my next post, but I wanted take a minute to say goodbye to an old guy. Yesterday I received a sobering email. Yesterday the world lost Lonesome George.

He was the last of his kind, the sole representative of the Pinta Island subspecies of Galapagos tortoise. A $10,000 reward was offered to anyone who could find a female like him. None did. His keepers tried for a few years to breed him with a different subspecies but with no success.  For those of us who love tortoises, I think the hardest part is the awful finality of “The End.” I can’t even comprehend it.

Species go extinct everyday, frogs, insects, tiny mammals. Sometimes it’s part of the order of things. And sometimes it’s because we royally screwed up. It’s the hardest to take when I know that people are responsible. It’s hardest when that species is 800lbs. And when it has a name. And liked it’s head scratched.

We did it ourselves. Maybe not us, personally, but our kind. From the introduction of injurious species like rats and goats, which eat tortoise eggs and young and destroy habitat, to actual consumption by people. Sailors traveling through often loaded up their ships with tortoises so they could have fresh meat on their travels. Darwin himself survived almost exclusively on tortoise meat while he visited the islands. It was all on us. We didn’t know what we were doing, and we sure didn’t mean to, but we did it.

I was always rooting for the old guy, that he would make the money shot and reproduce himself. That a hero would step out of the wings with a female (or three) just like him.  I pinned on him the hope that we could make up for some of our mistakes. If we could save George’s line, then just maybe we could undo some of the other ugliness that we as humans have created. This time we didn’t quite make it.

All is not lost for Galapagos tortoises. There are a couple of other subspecies, and there has been real success in their reproduction. Numbers have climbed from 3,000 all the way to about 20,000 in the last thirty years or so. But these are managed populations. Lacking the ability to eliminate rats on the islands, human intervention is required to rescue eggs, which must be transported to an entirely different island where they are raised for several years before returning to their home. There is no wild for them anymore.

So what can we do? That’s an easy answer with difficult follow-through. I can strive each day to leave the world a little better than I found it. As there’s a direct link between carbon emissions ad global warming, I can choose a day a week where I walk anywhere I need to go. The Aldabra Atoll where the other giant species of tortoise lives, is only 26 feet (yes, feet) above sea level. It won’t take much of a global temperature rise for their entire habitat to be under water.  I can choose to not throw food out of my car window. Hunting the small mammals that are drawn onto the road for these easy pickings, thousands of owls are hit by vehicles each year. I can choose to buy fish from companies that do their jobs responsibly and in a sustainable manner. I can support an accredited zoo or aquarium. They have ongoing captive-breeding and conservation projects to help endangered animals survive. I can teach my kids that it’s not all about me. There are other people who share this planet.

My desire is not to be preachy here. My goal is to challenge us all to do a little better than we have done. I think we owe that much to George. We owe that much to ourselves. Despite what we read in science fiction, this is the only planet we have.

Farewell, George. We’re going to get it right one day soon.

Baby Galapagos tortoises

Me and my own giant tortoise friend.

My beloved Tex, Aldabra extraordinaire.