TORTOLOGY! Twenty Tantalising Tortoise Titbits

Daily Mail (London), November 28, 1997 | Go to article overview

TORTOLOGY! Twenty Tantalising Tortoise Titbits


Byline: JULIAN CHAMPKIN

THEY were around before the dinosaurs. The specimens now on earth will, given half a chance, outlive most of us. The biggest wild creature ever seen in Britain was one of them. And now a 52-year-old tortoise - and [pounds sterling]50,000 - has been bequeathed, in the will of a millionaire, to the neighbour who helped looked after it.

Tortoises are very odd creatures indeed - as JULIAN CHAMPKIN reveals.

1 CHESTER the tortoise escaped from his Cheshire garden in 1960 and was found, 35 years later, alive and well on a verge just 750 yards from where he had last been seen.

He was recognised by a streak of white paint on his shell.

2 MOST tortoises sold as pets in Britain belong to either the Greek or hermann's species. Hermann's tortoises are bigger, have less vivid markings and a spur on their tails.

3 BOTH species were seriously endangered in their natural habitat as a result of being collected for export. It is now illegal to import them into Britain - they should be British-bred.

4 CONTRARY to popular belief, male tortoises are not all that slow. When chasing a female they can 'run' for short distances at something approaching a slow human walking pace - but generally they see little point in fast movement.

5 TORTOISES are possibly the longest living animal. A garden tortoise in Britain should live for 70 years if properly treated. In the Seychelles there is one that locals claim is 150 years old.

6 TORTOISES hibernate in the British winter; but in warmer countries, they just slow down. To survive hibernation, they need a temperature of between four and ten degrees Celsius.

7 BRITISH pond wildlife is being decimated by red-eared terrapins - a wildlife disaster caused by television.

Huge numbers of the American species were bought as pets after the Ninja Turtle craze; when interest faded, many were released by their owners into ponds and lakes - where they have become a menace.

They can survive our now-warmer winters; and the recent long, hot summers have even allowed them to breed. Having no natural predators and eating almost everything, they are having a devastating effect on the indigenous wildlife of the pools.

8 TORTOISES live on land, turtles live in the sea and terrapins live in fresh water.

That, at least, is the British usage; but Americans tend to call everything a turtle, which causes great confusion.

9 IT IS impossible to determine the sex of a tortoise until it is five years old. It grows up male or female depending on the temperature at which its egg was incubated.

An egg kept warmer than average becomes female, while one kept cooler becomes male.

10 A TORTOISE'S shell is an outgrowth of its vertebrae and ribs with a horny layer on top. …

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