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Nature Notes February 2018


Nature Notes

I would like to focus on tortoises this month. These animals are in a group of reptiles called Chelonians that also includes turtles and terrapins. Tortoises have existed since before the dinosaurs, that is, they appeared on the earth about 220 million years ago.

There are at least 3 species of Mediterranean tortoise, and during the 1950s and 1960s many of these animals were collected and brought to England in large numbers then sold in pet shops. Thankfully, this practice is now illegal. However, many tortoises remained stranded on our north Atlantic island which is warm enough for them to survive but too cold for them to breed, so their gene line is destined to die out. All we can do is take good care of them and try to give them a good life.

Thankfully, there are organisations in the Mediterranean region that are helping the wild populations to recover. Also, some British owners are incubating eggs laid by their tortoises in incubators and hatching them out in captivity, but it is a labour-intensive practice and takes a great deal of time and care. The young tortoises have to be kept under electric lamps for many years.

Tortoises hibernate from about October to April. They naturally and instinctively bury themselves in the ground, which generally remains warmer than the winter air. It is generally believed now that allowing them to do this naturally, rather than packing them away in a hay-box is better for the tortoise. The tortoises heart-beat slows-down and they enter a state of torpor. However, if it gets very cold, they can dig themselves in deeper if necessary. Then, when the sun begins to warm the ground during March/April the tortoises gradually heave themselves out of the soil and find a place to sunbathe which warms up their bodies allowing them to search out food and water.

Tortoises eat a range of herbs including dandelions, sow thistles, wild lettuce and grasses. They will also feed on the occasional dead animal as a protein supplement. They do live a very long time, and it is not unusual for tortoises to live well beyond 100 years.

Dr.Martyn Stenning