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They also inhabit many islands, although numerous island populations and species are now extinct because of human occupation. There are at least 15 genera of living tortoises; one genus , Geochelone , is distributed from South America to Africa and Asia. There are about 49 species of tortoises, and they range in size from the padlopers Homopus of southern Africa, with shell lengths of 10 to 15 cm 4 to 6 inches , to the giant tortoises Geochelone of the Aldabra and Galapagos islands , with shells over 1 metre 3.

Tortoises live in a variety of habitats, from deserts to wet tropical forests. Most tortoises are vegetarians and eat foliage, flowers, and fruits; some tortoise species from moist forest habitats are more opportunistic and consume animal matter.

Giant tortoise believed extinct for 100 years found in Galápagos

Copulation can be a precarious issue for male tortoises, because they must balance themselves on the high-domed shell of females to fertilize them. The majority of tortoise species lay small clutches of eggs , typically fewer than 20, and many small-bodied species lay fewer than 5. Even though tortoises possess columnar hind limbs and stubby hind feet, they dig their nests with alternating scooping movements of their hind limbs, like most other turtles.

Article Media. Info Print Cite. Submit Feedback. Thank you for your feedback. Written By: George R. Read More on This Topic. Although numerous animals, from invertebrates to mammals, have evolved shells, none has an architecture….

Giant Tortoises

Learn More in these related Britannica articles:. Although numerous animals, from invertebrates to mammals, have evolved shells, none has an architecture like that of turtles. The turtle shell has a top carapace and a bottom plastron. Some go back to his partner in Southern California, to keep the babies coming. But for all the density of animals, the only sound came from the humans. Popcorn, or Poppy, is named after the popcorn and rice cakes he lived on before coming to the rescue, which also houses chickens, goats, and sheep.

The boys have been kept separated by cinderblocks and chicken wire ever since a fight between the two landed Popcorn a bloody eye and Tellem and her husband had to cart the enormous animal off to the vet. Tellem works hard to actively discourage breeding. She sends press releases to journalists who cover animal issues, encourages people who contact her for information to adopt instead of buying babies, and tells off others who email her looking for a female to breed.

They operate more like a dating service, connecting homeless tortoises with potential adoptees. Things got especially bad after the housing collapse. Tellem recalled a number of calls and emails from realtors trying to sell a house, only to find a giant tortoise in the backyard. She still gets those calls occasionally — not just about sulcatas, but about all kinds of abandoned turtles and tortoises. The California Turtle and Tortoise Club took in at least abandoned or surrendered sulcatas last year.

However, not everyone who rescues sulcatas takes such a hard line against breeding as Tellem. Al Wolf, director of the Sonoma County Reptile Rescue , has rescued dozens of sulcatas — a few years ago, he had 45 living on his 2-acre property in Sonoma County. He has since rehomed most of the males and is down to six sulcatas of his own. Wolf thinks that between sulcatas being overbred and poached from the wild in Africa, extra giant tortoises is the lesser of two evils. Hell yes. Maercks, at the East Bay Vivarium, believes that the market is nowhere near saturation, given the ease with which he sells his yearly batch of babies.

When asked about the struggle rescues are having, he said he was surprised to hear about it. In fact, about six teachers keep a rotation going with him: They get a baby for the classroom, raise it up for a few years, and then trade it back to Maercks for a new baby.

People forced to give up their tortoises are easy to vilify as irresponsible or careless.

Radiated Tortoises - Classroom - BTN

But for many owners, the decision is heartbreaking. They tried to find his owners, but when that failed, Olson made room in her yard and her heart. But after three years, Dorry repeatedly got sick with a bacterial infection. Desperate to keep Dorry healthy, burdened by vet bills, and having no way to keep the cats out of her yard, Olson reached out to Gary and Ginger Wilfong, who run Bay Area Turtle and Tortoise Rescue, the biggest tortoise sanctuary in Northern California. Last September, after five years with Olson, Dorry moved to his new home.

She misses him terribly, but visits the sanctuary every chance she gets, to feed him treats and scrub his shell with a vegetable brush. When I visited in April, she had around a dozen tortoises wandering the yard or napping in a heated shed next to a big chameleon cage. Rheaume usually adopts out healthy tortoises through California Turtle and Tortoise Club and keeps the worst cases.


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Her resident sulcatas all bear the scars of injury, malnutrition, or neglect. Angel, another sulcata, is missing half of one front leg and half of her other foot. Rheaume flipped her up on her hind legs so I could see the patch of her bottom shell that rotted away, probably from extended contact with water.

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The bone in her leg, which was exposed when she came to Hodge Podge Lodge, has callused over; her bottom shell is slowly regrowing. Often, the owners have had their tortoises for decades. What will happen when she gets too old to take care of her own crew? Henry lives in a Manhattan apartment with his owner, Amanda Green, and goes for several walks a week in Central Park, where he is carted in a baby stroller.

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But Henry had a difficult early life, which shows both in the mild pyramiding on his shell and in the fact that, at 16 years old, he weighs only 17 pounds — a fraction of the 50 or 60 pounds a normal male sulcata would likely weigh at his age. Before Green adopted Henry three years ago from an overwhelmed owner, he spent most of his time in a Tupperware container. Henry, like most sulcatas, loves to pace the fence line, three legs on the ground and one up on the baseboard, so his shell and front leg spikes were hell on the walls.

Green also keeps a baby gate across the living room. Otherwise, Henry can rearrange furniture or knock books off shelves. Even with the gate, he once got in and tipped over a 6-foot mirror, shattering it to bits. Miraculously, he was unharmed, but the episode still caused a heart-stopping moment for Green when she got home and saw glass everywhere.

Despite the extra responsibility his care requires, Green loves Henry immensely and is even considering moving to a more appropriate climate, like LA, with outdoor space for him to roam. Having wanted a tortoise since she was a little girl, Green has now moved on to more expansive dreams, including opening her own animal sanctuary.

Williams worries that sulcatas will either die out there or become pests, destroying already limited resources. Burney believes the birds once filled the same ecological niche giant tortoises fill on the Galapagos and Aldabra islands, cropping weeds and keeping the competition lively between ground-level plants. But the biggest tortoise species would have been prohibitively expensive to ship to Hawaii, and there was already a ready supply of local pet sulcatas with owners who would be happy to get rid of them.

Two graduate students from the University of Zurich did their master's projects on the tortoises and found that they were doing their jobs well, eating mostly non-native plants and the leaves and flowers of native plants that had fallen to the ground. The sulcatas are all carefully fenced in, and if one ventures off the reserve, the staff mobilizes to fetch it back. For now, the sulcata population at the reserve is limited by how much fencing Burney and his wife can afford, and how much time and energy the two sixtysomethings can put toward the project.

A recurring theme among sulcata owners and rescuers I met was how close many of them are to aging out of the trade. Al Wolf, of the Sonoma County Reptile Rescue, told me that most of the people who come to him looking for a tortoise are over 50 and headed for retirement.


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And sanctuary living attracts an older crowd, too. Since owning a home with a yard is a good foundation for successful sulcata ownership, it makes sense that an older demographic would end up with the animals, guaranteeing a perpetual motion machine of rehoming as life catches up to aging owners.