Land Turtles, or Tortoises
There is only one family of land turtles. This family includes the most widely distributed of nonmarine turtles and perhaps the longest-living of all turtles. Tortoises have steep-sided carapaces, and thick scales on their heads and forelegs. These land turtles are found on all continents and a few islands. Africa has a greater number, and more species, of tortoises than any other continent.The giant tortoise grows up to four feet long and weighs 400 pounds.
Turtles are an order, or large group, of reptiles. This order is divided into smaller groups called families. One of these families of turtles is the tortoise family. So, yes, tortoises are turtles, too.
Unlike sea turtles, tortoises live only on land. Like the leopard tortoise, tortoises have big, heavy shells that are shaped like domes. And unlike sea turtles, they can hide inside their shells for protection. When they’re frightened, tortoises just tuck their heads and tails inside their shells. Some tortoises also tuck their feet in. Other tortoises pull their front feet over their heads.
Tortoises move very slowly on land. They are the slowest of all turtles. In fact, they are the slowest of all reptiles. But in spite of being slow, the stout, short legs and feet of the tortoise are just right for walking on dry grass and rough ground.
Tortoises are turtles that are strictly land animals. They take drinks and short baths at watering holes, but their behavior shows a strong preference for walking about on land. They never dip their head underwater or bathe for long periods.
Tortoises also tend to be bigger than turtles and live longer. Their shells are more domed than turtles and their hind legs are shaped like those of an elephant. Many tortoises also have horny scales on their front legs.
The Galapagos tortoise that lives on islands off Ecuador in South America is perhaps the most famous tortoise. It can weigh more than 500 pounds (227 kilograms) and live to be 150 years old. “Galapagos” means tortoise in Spanish.
Tortoises are so slow that they can’t migrate to warmer habitats, as sea turtles can. But some tortoises live in places where winters can get very cold. So what do the tortoises in these places do when it gets cold? They dig burrows, which are underground shelters.
Inside their safe burrows, the tortoises hibernate, or sleep through the cold months. During this time, a tortoise’s heartbeat slows. The tortoise hardly breathes at all.
When a tortoise digs a burrow for winter, it needs to dig down deep to escape the cold. Some tortoises may dig winter burrows that are up to 10 to 30 feet (3 to 9.1 meters) long! Tortoises dig with their front legs. Their broad nails and strong front limbs make the digging go quickly.
This group of land turtles is the only one found in the United States. There are four species: the Texas, or Berlandier, tortoise, the desert tortoise, the gopher tortoise, and the Bolson tortoise. These species are similar, and range in size from 4 to 15 inches (10 to 38 cm). They have brownish-tan carapaces and yellow plastrons. They get their generic name from the habit three species have of making burrows in which to hibernate and to hide from enemies. The Texas tortoise inhabits southern Texas and northeastern Mexico. The desert tortoise ranges from Nevada to Mexico. The gopher tortoise is found in the southeastern United States. The Bolson tortoise inhabits a small area in northeastern Mexico.
Giant tortoises were once abundant on many islands of the Pacific and Indian oceans. They were almost exterminated in the 19th century because their flesh was used as food for ships' crews and island colonists. Cats and dogs brought in by colonists ate large quantities of the turtles' eggs. The giant tortoises that still survive on the Galápagos Islands grow to a length of 4 feet (120 cm) and a weight of 400 pounds (180 kg). A few have been known to live more than 150 years.
Two interesting land turtles of Africa are the hinged-back tortoise and the pancake tortoise (or Tornier's tortoise ). The hinged-back tortoise, like the American box turtle, can close its shell tightly, but does this by moving its hinged carapace. The pancake tortoise has such a thin, soft bony layer of shell that it can squeeze itself into narrow crevices.
Tortoises can get very big—especially giant tortoises like the Galapagos (guh lah puh gohs) tortoise. The Galapagos is one of the largest members of the tortoise family. Some adults weigh more than 600 pounds (270 kilograms). That’s as much as three or four grown men.
The Galapagos has a high, domed shell. It also has four stumpy legs that look a bit like an elephant’s legs. When this tortoise walks, its enormous body rocks from side to side.
Galapagos tortoises and other giant tortoises live longer than any other land animal. It is not unusual for them to live for over one hundred years. In fact, an Aldabra tortoise from the African island nation of Seychelles (say shehl) lived 152 years.
Galapagos tortoises can be found in only one spot in the world—on the Galapagos Islands. The nearest continent, South America, is more than 600 miles (965 kilometers) away to the east.
Sometimes Galapagos males compete for the same female. One way males do this is by threatening each other with loud grunts and open jaws. This can often be enough to scare off a rival. But sometimes the only way to win over a mate is to fight.
When two males are ready to fight, they pull their heads and long necks into their shells. Then they ram into each other as hard as they can. Bang! Again and again, they slam into each other with great force.
Mating season for the Galapagos tortoises can be a noisy time. Males grunt loudly when they try to attract females. Some grunts are so loud that they can be heard almost a mile away.
Desert tortoises live where it’s hot and dry. Some live in deserts where the temperatures can often climb above 100° Fahrenheit (38° Celsius). But the desert tortoise knows just what to do when the temperature really rises. It burrows underground to escape the hot sun. On very hot days, this tortoise comes out only once in the early morning and once again in the late afternoon.
Since it doesn’t rain often in the desert, this turtle has to make the most of it when it does rain. To “catch” the rain, the desert tortoise digs basins, or bowl-shaped holes, in the ground. At the first sign of rain, the tortoise checks back on each basin. If all goes well, the turtle gets a much-needed drink.
When the desert tortoise does find water, it drinks quite a bit. It is thirsty, but it is also storing water in its bladder. During the desert’s long dry spells, the turtle’s body can use this supply until it rains again.
The pancake tortoise lives on the rocky mountains of eastern Africa. When alarmed, it scurries to a narrow crack in the cliffs. Then it squeezes snugly into the small opening.
How can the pancake tortoise do this? Unlike other tortoises, it has a very flat and soft shell. Some scientists believe that this turtle can let air out of its lungs and become even flatter. Once inside a narrow crack, the pancake tortoise fills its lungs with air and expands its shell to stay put. This turtle can fit so tightly inside the smallest of openings that most predators can’t pull it out.
The pancake tortoise is an excellent climber. It can sometimes be found as high as 6,000 feet (1,829 meters) aboveground. Up there, it feeds on fresh and dried mountain grasses, as well as on wildflowers.
Most turtles are able to pull their heads directly into their shells. Side-necked turtles can’t do this. Instead, they fold their heads to the side and tuck them under their shells.
There are two families of side-necked turtles. These families are snake-necked turtles and side-necked turtles. All members of these two families live in Africa, Australia, and South America.
The Australian snake-necked turtle lives in northern Australia and a few nearby islands. It grows to about 1 foot (30 centimeters) long. When frightened, this turtle releases a smelly, reddish-orange liquid from under its front legs. That’s enough to discourage most predators.
Any change in your turtle’s behavior or appetite should cause you to watch it closely. It may be a sign of illness. Here are some things to examine:
Listen to your turtle breathe. If a turtle is wheezing, rasping, breathing with its mouth open, or if there is liquid around its nostrils, the turtle may have a respiratory infection.
Look at your turtle’s shell and skin. Any shell deformities, softening of the shell, or peeling of the skin could indicate a nutritional problem.
Also look in your turtle’s eyes. Swollen or cloudy eyes may indicate an infection or a deficiency of vitamin A.Check your turtle’s solid waste. It should be solid and well formed. If not, take samples to your vet for tests. Parasites can cause diarrhea.
When in doubt, take your turtle to a vet. Often, sick turtles do not show symptoms until they are seriously ill.
Even if they don’t show it, many turtles sold as pets are sick, underweight, and undernourished. You should take your turtle to a veterinarian who is knowledgeable about turtles soon after you buy it.
Turtles can carry worms and other parasites. You should take a fecal sample (a sample of solid waste) to the vet, who will test the sample for these problems. The vet can give your turtle medicine that will rid it of most kinds of parasites.
While you are there, your vet will also examine your turtle’s shell and skin for evidence of nutritional deficiencies, injury, or infection. Your turtle’s mouth may also be opened for signs of mouth rot—a swelling and redness of the mouth that happens in reptiles. If your turtle is dehydrated or underweight, your vet will let you know.
Ask your veterinarian how often you should bring your turtle in for checkups. Also, ask your vet what measures to take to keep your specific type of turtle healthy and happy.
Your turtle is not a toy. It is a living creature that knows when it is thirsty, hungry, and sleepy. It feels pain and will try to protect itself from danger. If you ignore your turtle, its life will be short, and it will suffer.
As an owner, it is your responsibility to give your turtle the best home and life you can. You must feed it nutritious foods, keep its living quarters clean, and provide it with enough space. You must take it to the veterinarian regularly and protect it from animals that might hurt it. If you go on vacation, you must make appropriate arrangements.
Your turtle will fare better if you educate yourself about its natural history, biology, and captive care. Also, ask yourself, “What can I do to make my turtle a little happier?” Maybe get it a few raspberries? Show it you care by keeping its home tidy? If you do such things as these, it is likely that you and your box turtle will have a very long friendship.