Nearly Wordless Wednesday: Over and Out!

We tend to think of tortoises as slow. And subject to the laws of gravity. Sometimes we’re wrong.

This species (Manouria impressa) is pretty good at climbing. But they don’t always stick the landing.

What are you looking at?

What are you looking at?

Nobody’s perfect, right?

Gratuitous belly button shot! Hatchling pancake tortoise. The umbilicus is the bright yellow patch. It is rapidly disappearing.

Gratuitous belly button shot! Hatchling pancake tortoise. The umbilicus is the bright yellow patch. It is rapidly disappearing.

The One Where I’m Caught By Surprise

If you’ve visited in the last couple of weeks, you already know about the amazing things happening at my zoo. If you need to catch up, click here, here and here. I’ll wait. There. Ready?

I’ve been keeping a secret. When I went in last week and took photos of the baby box turtle, someone else was there, too. But I couldn’t tell you until now. Click to enlarge. They’re pretty amazing little tortoises.

These are impressed tortoises (Manouria impressa) from southeast Asia. This species is considered vulnerable in the wild, meaning that if things don’t change, they will be threatened with extinction. Impressed tortoises are commonly collected for food, and more recently for the pet trade. This trend is worrisome because impressed tortoises do not adapt to captivity well. Wild-caught animals are devilishly difficult feeders and often starve to death. Setting up a healthy captive breeding population is tricky under the best of circumstances. Last week, we hatched three. Hats off to our reptile department.

The red dots mean that they have been accessioned into the collection and are official. You know not to count your chickens before they hatch. The same rule applies to tortoises. Hatching is a difficult process, and not all hatchlings survive. All three of these did.

Not to be outdone, the box turtle had a surprise for me yesterday. Siblings. Click to enlarge.

The egg teeth are impressive, aren’t they?

And a gratuitous bellybutton shot. Because that’s how I roll.




Happy Friday! What surprised you this week?

Bad Hair Day, Meet Bad Belly Button Day

There’s a new arrival at the zoo. I wanted to blog about it sooner, but I couldn’t. I’ll explain in just a bit. You remember Short Stack, the pancake tortoise that hatched in February?

Baby Pancake Tortoise

Baby Pancake Tortoise

The zoo has two pairs of pancake tortoises. Both laid eggs this winter that were intact and able to be incubated. This species is apparently a little tricky to incubate, and there can be as much as 40 days’ variation in hatch-times, unlike mammal gestation which can often be narrowed down to a two day window. A couple of weeks ago, Short Stack was joined by our second pancake hatching.

Each morning, keepers check the eggs in the incubator for signs if hatching, also known as pipping. The assistant curator knows how much I love this species, so he sent me an email to let me know the little critter was making its way into the world. I missed his email. Because I was already at the zoo. I got pictures. Crazy pictures.

Remember this turtle from last year?

The curve of the carapace (top shell) is incredible, but check out the wrinkles in the plastron (bottom shell)! I love how it has its little nose pulled in. Its face reminds me of Homer Simpson. And those bumpy things on either side are its legs.

See how its shell is folded over like a little burrito?

And how after a few days it looked like this?

It's a Spiny Hill turtle. It took it a couple of days to flatten out.

It’s a Spiny Hill turtle. It took it a couple of days to flatten out.

I thought all flat shelled tortoises and turtles developed in the egg the same way, with the sides folded down. Not Pancake tortoises! They actually develop rolled front to back. Look at how the baby flattens out over a few days’ time.

The reason it has taken so long to blog about this guy is because I don’t write about them until they have been accessioned (added) into the collection. And they can’t be accessioned without complete measurements of their shell. It’s hard to measure something that has been folded up like origami. It normally takes a couple of days for a tortoise to unfold completely. It took this guy about a week before it was flat enough to measure!

Day 5. Still a little wrinkled.

Day 5. Still a little wrinkled.

And here he is about two weeks after hatching, looking all ironed out. Finally.


I call him Squashy.

*** Nancy over at Not Quite Old asked why tortoises have a belly button at all. It was such a good question that I thought I’d answer it for those who are new to reptiles. Animals that develop in an egg are fed during their incubation by their yolk. They are attached to that yolk by an umbilical cord. After they emerge from the egg, the umbilicus closes. Sometimes that process takes a few days, sometimes traces can be seen a year later, but at that point it is nothing more than a mark on the shell.

The Post So Exciting I Forgot to Title It.

In yesterday’s post, I featured photos of two tiny bog turtle babies. They are roughly the size of a June beetle and hide like you wouldn’t believe, so I was delighted to be able to photograph them this young. As promised, I’ve got some other tortoise-y cuteness to start your weekend with.

For starters, here’s our newest hatchling.

That’s a bit of egg shell on its carapace. A brand new hatchling.

It’s a Pyxis arachnoides brygooi, or Northern Spider tortoise, one of the species of dwarf tortoises from Madagascar. The breeding program at our zoo is top notch. This is the ninth brygooi to hatch this year, and the 28th overall. Not too shabby considering that the first successful hatching in the entire country didn’t occur until six years ago. And you guessed it. That first hatching occurred at our zoo.

Because everyone loves a belly button image. Look at that little face!

And now an update on a pair we’ve been following for awhile. It’s Nash and Navi! The link takes you to the day that they hatched, way back in February.

They have really grown, but they’d still fit in my pocket. If I was so inclined. And if they wouldn’t pee on me.

Back in July, the pair weighed 52 grams combined. That’s the equivalent of about 17 American pennies. Nash was the bigger of the two by about 2 grams. Today, they tip the scales at 30 grams each! Navi was the tiniest of all the Indian Star hatchlings, but she has caught up. I wonder if she’ll pass her sister.

She looks like she’s been dining on powdered sugar doughnuts. It’s calcium powder, good for building a strong shell.

To get an idea of her size, that’s a clover bloom on her right.

And one more friend before we go.

Pyxis arachnoides oblonga, the Southern Spider Tortoise.  This one is my current favorite in the collection. Because I can play favorites if I want to.

Happy Friday, friends. If you’d like more tortoise updates in the future, be sure to say so in the comments. Someone I know doubts that people enjoy my tortoise posts as much as I do.

My Lucky Day!

Tortoise day was even better than usual this week. Remember the baby bog turtles? They’ve been released into the indoor enclosure that will be their home for the next year or so. They’re tiny. We’re talking the size of a quarter. And they’re shy. When you’re that small, the list of predators that can eat you is fairly long, so they stay hidden. In the wild, they hide for years. I knew it would likely be Christmas before I caught a glimpse of them again, so imagine my surprise when I looked in their enclosure and saw this:

Look at that!

Right there in the open, too! What? You don’t see it? Hmm. How about now?

They blend right in. Every drop of water has a highlight exactly like that neck ring!

And then I got even luckier, and I saw the other one, too!

Don’t tell me you can’t see it!

Shall we zoom in?

You can see it now, right?

Still not sure? Let’s get really close…

I love their serious little faces.

If you’re a baby tortoise fan, be sure to tune in tomorrow. I’ve got some pics to share of some other favorites, and maybe another belly button shot.

Test Your Eyes

If you’ve been with me any length of time, you know how proud I am of my zoo. If you’re  new reader, the easiest way to catch up is to Google “tortoise belly button.” No, for real. You’ll even see some of my images right there on the first page. Those are my current contribution to society. I am so proud to be famous for something. It beats being infamous for anything. Anywho (which is a word, according to Urban Dictionary, and may be the only entry that has no inappropriate connotation. I don’t think. Let me double-check.), back to the zoo.

One mark of a great zoo is that they not only take excellent care of the animals in their collection, but they also support and participate in relevant conservation projects outside their own facility. I can easily say that my zoo does just that.

My zoo’s reptile department has been involved in bog turtle conservation and research for over 20 years. The late Director pioneered the project, and it’s still going strong. They’ve discovered some amazing things over their years of captive breeding and re-release. For one, bog turtle hatchlings are tiny, and they grow so slowly that it takes them 10 year to venture forth from their hiding places to search for a mate. When I say hatchlings are tiny, I do mean tiny.  Remember these little babies? They are giants compared to baby bog turtles. Don’t believe me?

Do you see it?

Look at how small the eggs are compared to my finger tips. Oh, wait. What else is in there?

How about now?

Look closely! You may already see it.

How about now?

Here’s the fun. There are TWO of them in here! See them? Larger than life.

They’re about the size of a June bug. Imagine traipsing around a bog looking for one of these! If you still can’t see both of them, here they are.

How cute are they?

For more information about the bog turtle project, visit The Nature Conservancy’s.  26 species of rare plants and animals call this nature preserve home. It’s such a great story about the great things that can be done in a teeny, tiny corner of the world.

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.

Things That Make Me Happy

No surprise here. This post is kind of tortoise-y.

Aldabra tortoise getting a spa treatment. At least that’s what we humans call wallowing in mud.


The little Indian Star tortoises do more than tolerate being handled. They seem to enjoy it!


I interrupted the ploughshare tortoises at dinnertime.

Note the little guy on the right has food hanging from its jaws. Eating is always a good sign that all is well.

Thirty seconds earlier:

And this? This makes my heart so full it hurts.

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!

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!