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What You Might Not Know About Tortoises

By: Dr Gareth Evans - Updated: 21 Jun 2010 | comments*Discuss
Tortoises Reptiles Exotic Pets Greek

Tortoises surely must be the most instantly recognised and best-loved of all exotic pets. Even people who really can’t abide reptiles find them hard to resist, but although they are so familiar that they often seem like old friends, they’ve got their share of secrets too – and some of them are quite surprising!

Here’s just a few things about some of the members of this fascinating group of creatures that you might not already know.

Old Soldier

Over the years a number of animals, from cavalry horses to carrier pigeons have found themselves on the front-line and many different kinds still serve as regimental mascots today. One of the strangest examples of a creature that managed to do both was a tortoise called Timmy.

The longevity of tortoises is well known, but when “Timmy” – actually a female Spur-thighed Tortoise Testudo graeca – died in 2004 at the estimated age of 160, she was not only the oldest inhabitant of the UK, but also the last survivor of the Crimean War! Found onboard a Portuguese vessel in 1854, she was first adopted as the mascot of the HMS Queen, being present at the Royal Navy’s first bombardment of Sevastopol, before serving aboard other ships and eventually retiring to Powderham Castle, near Exeter in 1892.

There may not be a reptile equivalent of the Chelsea pensioners – or a telegram from the Queen – but 112 years of healthy, active retirement can’t be bad!

Killer Tortoise!

Although Timmy herself never did any actual fighting during her days in the navy, there is at least one recorded incident of a tortoise causing someone’s death – although admittedly it was the weapon rather than the killer.

The story involves a bald-headed Greek philosopher named Aeschylus – and as you’ll see, his lack of hair is a relevant detail – a Lammergeyer vulture Gypaetus barbatus and a tortoise of unrecorded species. An expert scavenger, the Lammergeyer has a neat trick for opening old bones to get at the marrow inside – carrying them high into the air, and then dropping them onto a rock to break them open. Some clever ones also worked out that they could do the same with tortoises – with the added bonus that you don’t have to wait for something to die before you get a feed!

The scene is now set – and you don’t have to be a big fan of CSI to see where this is going. Vulture picks up tortoise, mistakes glistening bald pate of passing Greek thinker for rock, drops tortoise, skull – not shell – cracks, and the unfortunate philosopher falls down stone dead. Whether the Lammergeyer then proceeded to try to eat the freshly deceased corpse of Aeschylus is not recorded – which is probably just as well.

Don’t let it put you off your Mediterranean holiday, though; Lammergeyers are nowhere near so common these days – nor, sadly, are tortoises – and it was the only case in over 2000 years!

Very, Very Old

Not only can individual tortoises, as in the case of Timmy, live a very long time, but their whole group is an extremely ancient one, dating back to the Mesozoic Era and the Great Age of Reptiles – making them contemporaries of the dinosaurs.

The first proto-turtles appeared in the Triassic, about 220 million years ago, and their basic form has changed very little in all the intervening time. It is only the fact that they have proved so successful and there are so many different species still with us today that stops them being labelled “living fossils.”

Tortoises Do Maths

And finally, have you ever heard of a gomboc? If you haven’t you’re not exactly alone – apart from mathematicians with an abiding interest in 3-dimensional geometry, very few of us have, but for some kinds of tortoise, that kind of clever maths lies behind one of their cleverest survival mechanisms.

Getting overturned and stranded on its back is bad news for any tortoise, but the Indian Star Tortoise Geochelone elegans has evolved with a particularly well designed shell to deal with just this problem and yes – you guessed it – it’s a gomboc.

Officially described as a convex 3-D shape which, when resting on a flat surface, has one stable and one unstable balancing point, in tortoise-terms that translates into a highly domed carapace that allows the animal to right itself just with the help of gravity. It is a useful trick to have up your sleeve, when your legs are just too short to help!

Tortoises have been around a long time – so it’s hardly surprising that plenty of fascinating stories surround them. It’s one of the best things about pet-keeping that no matter how much you know about your favourite kinds of animals, there always seems something new – and sometimes pretty strange – to discover.

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