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Slow and Steady: 6 Facts About Tortoises

The tale of the Tortoise and the Hare teaches us that slow and steady wins the day, and that persistence and grit will triumph over arrogance and complacency.

This tortoise lives up to the message of this fable. What it lacks in speed, it makes up for in tenacity. The species survived the extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs, and an individual tortoise can outlive other animals by decades, or even centuries.

There's a reason the ancient Romans named a battle formation (the famous testudo) after this creature.

Here are six facts about the tortoise:

1. They are Ancient

Tortoises live a long time and have been around for a long time.

On the island of Galápagos, there are giant tortoises that live for a century on average. Charles Darwin came here in the early 19th century and adopted a tortoise he named Harriet. It died in 2006.

As a species, they are older than crocodiles, having existed for an estimated 200 million years. This means they were around during the time of the dinosaurs and survived the extinction event that destroyed them.

Add to this, they can survive in climates ranging from dry deserts to tropical forests; and they are found on every continent except Antarctica.

2. Their Shells Have Skeletons

60 Bones, all connected to one another, comprise the tortoise's shell. This includes nerve endings that allow the tortoises to feel their shell being touched. They even enjoy having their shells stroked or lightly scratched.

The shell is made up of "scutes" which in turn are composed of keratin, the same material human fingernails are made of. Look closely and you can see growth rings around the scutes that reveal how old the tortoise is, like rings inside a tree trunk.

It's well known that tortoises hide inside their shells when threatened. What's less well known is that they can hold their breath for half an hour when they do so. You can hear a tortoise exhale as it retreats into its shell.

Although tortoises, being reptiles, are hard to read; there are ways to tell if a tortoise is happy and healthy. One of them is that it should have a smooth shell.

3. All Tortoises are Turtles, but not all Turtles are Tortoises

Turtles are shelled reptiles that belong to the Chelonii order, and tortoises are simply turtles that dwell on land.

How to tell the difference? Well, aside from the fact that one of them can swim, a turtle has a flatter shell and webbed flippers equipped with long claws.

Both lay eggs on land, nestled in burrows. While tortoises eat a primarily vegetarian diet, turtles are omnivores that feed on jellyfish and crustaceans as well as algae and seaweed.

4. They are Solitary Creatures

Tortoises keep to themselves. The exception is the gopher tortoise (the official state tortoise of Florida) which occasionally builds burrows alongside those of other tortoises, forming a colony.

Male and female tortoises don't form pairs and though the mother will protect a nest, she will not care for the young once they have hatched.

Tortoises may seem like placid creatures, but they are territorial, and male tortoises are liable to come into conflict, engaging in physical altercations that frequently result in injury. Furthermore, male tortoises partaking in the mating process are driven by hormones that can make them aggressive.

This is why anyone who wants to keep a pair of tortoises as pets should ensure they're both females. Two males will scrap over territory (although making the enclosure large may avoid this) while a male paired with a female will keep attempting to mate.

Being solitary may lead one to assume that tortoises lack social traits, but tortoises are actually drawn to faces. A study confirmed that tortoises presented with an array of shapes will instinctively approach the one that resembles a face; a behaviour that has previously been observed in human babies, monkeys and chicks. This impulse is present from birth, indicating that it is an evolutionary trait rather than an adaption to the environment.

5. They are Slow, but not Stupid

At 0.2 miles an hour, tortoises somehow manage to cover up to 4 miles a day. This is because they happen to enjoy exploring. They display curiosity. A tortoise that has had its curiosity piqued will lift its head to get a better look, and usually approach the object of interest.

The intelligence of a tortoise shouldn't be underestimated either. A study conducted in 2006 placed a tortoise and a rat in the same maze. The reptile actually proved more effective at navigating the maze and retrieving the food. Unlike the rat, it never returned to the same place twice.

So the tale of The Tortoise and the Hare may have more truth to it than we realise.

6. I Once Got Charged by a Tortoise

Was the tortoise angry at me? Who can tell? The emotions of reptiles are hard to read. All I know is I was standing in the garden of a hotel observing one of their pet tortoises when it suddenly charged right at me!

Thankfully, by the time it reached the point where I had originally been standing, I had left and gone home.

Note The above story is heavily embellished


General information. National Geographic.

2020, September 16. Queen Mary University of London. Tortoise hatchlings are attracted to faces from birth. ScienceDaily.

Hecht, Jeff. 2011, December 20. Cold-blooded cognition: Tortoises quick on the uptake. NewScientist.

Harris, Samantha. 7 Signs of a happy tortoise. Tortoise Knowledge.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.