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.

Baby Pictures. And a Contest

It’s hard to believe! The Indian Star tortoise hatchlings are almost three months old, and it’s time to split them up into larger habitats.


Just a few months ago, they were exploding out of their egg shells. Time flies.


Getting a first bath

And now they’re ready to move on to bigger and better things.

Here’s the fun part. I have picked out a pair of them that I am hoping to write about. At least in blog posts, but possibly a series of children’s books. And here’s where the contest comes in. They need names. Really cool ones.

Taking a sunbath and having some breakfast. Will they be Moon Pie and Air Mail forever?

Send me your suggestions. I’ll narrow it down to a few of my favorites, and readers will get to vote. The person(s) who submitted the two names that are ultimately selected will win a prize. I have two ideas for prizes at the moment. Neither involves shipping a live animal, but they’ll be cool.

Here’s what you need to know:

Enter by submitting your suggestions in the comments box. One pair of names per comment, but you can suggest more than one pair of names.

Gender-neutral names are preferable. The tortoises were incubated as females, but sometimes surprises happen. If they’re creative and awesome enough, though, I’ll definitely consider gender specific names.

Beware of copyright infringement. These names will be used publicly, so I’ll be skipping over Edward/Bella, Sheldon/whoever the hot girl he’s supposed to be in love with, etc.

Think outside the box. Clever and cute will win me any day. I once owned a red-foot (no, not THAT kind of red-foot, sj! A red-footed tortoise) I named Rigger Tortoise.

Be appropriate. These are names my kids will be reading. And my mom.

The finalists will not be chosen by a robo-number-picker-thingy. The finalists will be chosen by me. So wow me! Knock my non-existent socks off! (it’s Chaco season, you know).

Finalists will be posted for voting on June 1. Or somewhere thereabouts. Don’t hold me to the specific date in case I’m getting my hair done or something. When finalists have been posted, the contest will be closed at that point to new submissions.

International entries are permitted. I may have to change the final prize at the end if someone outside the US wins, due to cost of shipping. But you’ll get something awesome.

I reserve the right to:

Lose my mind, thereby rendering contest null and void.

End submissions early or late. Or whatever.

Dye my hair purple. Just because. I told you I might get my hair done.

End the contest without a winner because Squish wants to stick with the names “Moon Pie” and “Air Mail.”


So there you have it! So easy! Now get to suggesting!

What Happens When You Eat A Lot

Remember this little guy?

Look how tiny!

We discussed their hearty appetite, right? Yeah. Feed an Indian star tortoise well, and 7 weeks later, you get this:

Look! I can see myself! I’m pretty!

Yes, they’ve doubled in size, with no sign of slowing down. Impressive, no?

Wait! Don’t EAT the quarter! You might have a problem, little friend. I didn’t want to be the one to tell you, but…

The Latest Fitness Rage

I am so sore from yesterday’s workout that I can barely move. It was a great one. It was tough, and there were times that I wasn’t sure I’d make it, but I couldn’t stop smiling. No matter how bad the burn or how many times I got peed on. Oh, wait. Maybe I should start by explaining my workout. Yesterday, we moved the giant Aldabra tortoises from their off-exhibit winter enclosure to their summer digs. And a good time was had by all.

How do you move three large tortoises all the way across the zoo? Two answers. Very carefully, and pickup truck. They’re entirely too big for us to move them all at once. The girls and the hatchlings make the first trip.

And lift, and lift, and lift! Feel the burn! No, that's not me. I am taking the picture, silly.

The hatchlings? So glad you asked. This:

6 years ago. Time flies.

Is now this:

Yeah. Six years. Incredible, huh? 20 curls, please.

The ladies are taken to the clinic for weights and radiographs to check for egg development.

Patches REALLY doesn't want on the scale. So she peed and pooped all over the vets. I will have to try that at my next checkup. Lift, guys!

The bucket? Again?

And on to their new enclosure. Here’s where my part of the workout came in. My job was to convince these nearly 200lb tortoises to behave like ladies and not step on anyone’s toes. Not always easy. This job involved a lot of “brace yourself and hang on.” And a great deal of poop. Like hot yoga. (note: I have never participated in hot yoga, but this is how I imagine it would be.

There I am! Along with four other people and five tortoises.

Once the girls were safely deposited, it was time to move Al.

To put it into perspective, those guys are all six feet tall. Big Al lives up to his name. He likely tips the scales at 600lbs. I think I'll leave this one to the ones with the muscles.

Riding with Al was a bit of an adventure. His natural curiosity meant some squashed toes and pushing against 600lbs of “I want to see over THERE!” Feel the burn? And the bruise?

It was worth the effort! Doesn’t he look happy? I

Nobody’s Perfect

What can I say? We all have our limitations. I lack the ability to draw more than a stick figure with bloated hands, tortoises tend to lack depth perception and many are very far-sighted. Adaptations don’t develop unless there’s need.  I don’t need to draw well because I have other obvious talents. Like toenail painting. I’m good. I almost never get polish on my shoes anymore. And tortoises tend to live in tall grasses and have never needed to catch a baseball, so no evolutionary energy was expended in developing good binocular vision.

Tortoises can see at least some colors and can be counted on to try and taste anything that is bright yellow or orange. I choose my footwear carefully when I will be working with the giant tortoises. Combine far-sightedness with a penchant for bright colors, and you have this:

That yellow stripe looks like tasty fruit, right! Don’t judge! See the egg? This little guy may actually have fallen off the turnip truck yesterday.

For all my friends who love baby tortoise videos, a present from me to you. Enjoy!

New Kids In Town

The rarest tortoise in the world. Possibly fewer than 400 left in the wild. It’s hard to wrap my brain around it. The incredible thing is that I now have the opportunity to wrap my hands around them. My zoo made international news last week with the announcement that they are the recipients of four of eight Astrochelys yniphora (ploughshare tortoises)  confiscated last year.

Here you can see the very unique dome-shaped shell.


The ploughshare tortoise is endemic to the island of Madagascar, as are many of the tortoises our zoo is already successful with. They’re from the northwestern corner of the country, and are rapidly disappearing due to poaching for food and for the pet trade.

The coloration really melts my butter

They look enormous, don’t they? They’re not. While they will one day top 100lbs, these particular animals weigh half a pound or less.

Look at that face! THAT FACE!

They possess a unique body shape. Their carapace (top shell) has a cartoonish roundness that I find endearing. With proper humidity and diet, the shell should remain like this. The common name comes from a weird protrusion on the front of males. It’s used to flip rival males over during battles over females. Amazing video here.  Whether the youngsters we have are males are females is unknown at this point. It will be at least 10 years before they are old enough to breed. Working with tortoises usually means thinking in the long-term.

I think this one might be my favorite of the four, which by default makes it my favorite tortoise in the entire universe

Welcome to my corner of the world, little friends. I have high hopes for you!

Going High-Tech

Do you see what I see? NO! I'm not pregnant. Pardon me while I hate you for a few minutes. Although that was my husband's first assumption, too. Come to think of it, I haven't seen him since I showed him this pic...

What do you see in the photo above? EGGS! Well, technically follicles. They won’t be actual shelled eggs until after fertilization occurs. Three of them are clearly visible in this ultrasound. That’s right, I said ultrasound. They’re not just for mammals anymore. Oh, did I mention who was having the procedure?

Meet Patches.

I thought MY ultrasounds were a drag, but I was never suspended from a bucket. 4th time's the charm, right? NO! I'm really not pregnant. Just messing with you.

Patches is a female Aldabra tortoise. Given her size, it’s safe to assume she’s at least 80 years old, but who knows for sure? She was wild-caught, so she is likely even older than that. Think that’s old? Meet her suitor.

Please ignore my squinty eye. Either I am pretending I'm a pirate, or the flash was incredibly bright. Focus on my pal Al.

This is Big Al. He’s around 150. I love this tortoise, and I’ve been working on a Gal-Pal-For-Al campaign for several years now, so here we go. If Al can get the job done, we’ll have some of these in a few months:

Look at how tiny! And it's 6 months old in this picture! This was taken six years ago, and they're bigger than basketballs now. Another 15 years, and they might be big enough to breed!

Fingers crossed!

Hitting the Trifecta

Any zoo or breeding facility that produces one of the three subspecies of Spider Tortoise (pyxis arachnoides) from Madagascar can consider the breeding season season successful. A spectacular year would see the arrival of all three. Last Saturday marked just such a year for my zoo.

The first to hatch this year was the Northern Spider tortoise.

Pyxis arachnoides brygooi, the Northern Spider tortoise


Then we added a Common Spider tortoise.

Pyxis arachnoides arachnoides, the Common Spider tortoise which, despite its name, is endangered.


On Saturday, I stopped by the Herpetology department to soak the larger tortoises. While I was there, we checked out the incubator, and who should we spot?

Pyxis arachnoides oblonga, the Southern Spider tortoise


It’s cause for celebration when one of these species hatches. It’s a banner year that sees all three of them. I removed it from the incubator box and set it up in a container of its own. While I was giving it the first misting, I got the surprise of my life. I saw movement in the incubator box.


This egg is pipping. The process takes hours. Talk about being in the right place at the right time!

One hind leg out, one foreleg out.

It's sideways in its shell. Its hind leg is on the left, its foreleg is resting on the edge of the eggshell on the right. You can see the dark blotches on its plastron, which is how this species is identified.


April Fool’s!

So it’s April Fool’s day, and I can’t just let such an occasion go by without posting something. To celebrate Liar’s day, I usually tell someone that I’m pregnant (shut up, SJ!), but I have just moved Squish out of my room after three years, and I’m in no mood to tempt fate. So instead of lying to you, I’ll post the solution to Thursday’s Where’s Waldo post.

Here’s the picture that contains, much to my surprise, not one turtle, but two!

Do you see them? Of course, you do! No?

A little zoom?

How about now?

I bet many of you can see one already. But do you see the second one? Are you ready?

The neck ring on the baby on the left makes it look like a reflection on the water. This is why it took ten years for the researchers to recapture a re-released baby. They are tiny, and their camouflage is excellent!

I know. The one on the left hardly looks like a turtle, but you’ll have to believe me. Here it is out of the water.

The neck ring seems like it would be a dead-giveaway but is instead brilliant camouflage.

Here’s the funny part. The turtle on the left was the one I was actually photographing. The face on the right was a surprise!

Happy April-fool’s-Heather’s-not-pregnant day!