Another day – another gosh!…

The tortoise. Hmmm. Not the sharpest tool in the shed – even among reptiles, which aren’t known for their intellectual prowess. Probably the world’s slowest animal too. And when it comes to sweetness and honey and good manners and good looks – the tortoise is also toward the back of the line. Poor things. BUT!…

But… there’s still something about these creatures that charms, enchants, enraptures and enthralls. Maybe it’s something in our genes that says that despite their outward appearance the tortoise is wholly… tasty… But more on that later. For now: giant tortoise pics!…

Only a handful of the Galápagos tortoise complex remains today – the rest having become extinct. But, again – more on that later…

…First – some fascinating Galápagos tortoise facts. First, how long they live: from around 200 to 250 years old! While still young and growing physically (up to 80 years old) one can determine their age by the rings on their shell:

The tortoises here have really long necks, which seemed to me to be the only thing that set them apart from the Aldabra tortoises on the Seychelles; that and the different shape of the shell.

But later, upon closer inspection, the Seychelles tortoises also have long necks. Here are some pics of both all mixed up. Can you discern the Seychellois from the Galápagos tortoises?

Our guide told us how the DNA of both Seychellois and Galápagos tortoises is practically the same; i.e., they’re the same species family. That means that they could crossbreed (though no one’s tried such an experiment!) and have offspring.

But these two types of tortoise got me thinking. Both are endemic to their habitat, yet they’re close relatives. How come?!

If you look on a map of the world, the nearest mainland to the Galápagos Islands is South America – 1000km to the east. To get to the Seychelles there’s another 3500km to cover to get to the Atlantic, then another 6500 to get to Africa, then another 3000 to finally get to the Seychelles. That makes a whopping 15,500km between the Galápagos and the Seychelles. That’s going east. Going the other way it’s even further: 15,000km to Indonesia, 4000 to the Indian Ocean, and another 5000 to the Seychelles – 24,000km.

In short – there aren’t many places on the planet further from each other! Yet still these tortoises are relatives?!!

Here’s a theory of mine: A long time ago, the Aldabra giant tortoise wasn’t endemic to the Seychelles; it roamed everywhere along the equator where the climate was tropical – right around the globe. And they lived happily and long – as they do today, since their shells put most predators well off them as a dinner dish. But then along came… Homo sapiens and various other humans

They start to emigrate all over the world, wherever they go destroying the ecosystem around them. First they go after anything tasty and nutritious – especially if whatever it is doesn’t run fast, and that of course meant tortoises (with humans more able to get at the meat with their bigger brains, hands, and later – utensils, etc.). And nearly every single tortoise on the planet got gobbled up by hungry humans without a care. But the few that were left – they happened to be located in the Seychelles and on the Galápagos Islands.

The more observant observer may at this point ask: ‘So where are bones?’ Since archeologists often find remains of extinct animals wherever they find the remains of ancient man. So where are the tortoise remains?

Let me explain. Tortoises breed along coastal zones. Eggs laid are buried by the mother under the sand of a beach. This means that tortoise remains should be looked for along the coast, not up in mountain caves (where ancient remains are normally found). Also, since man settled across the world tens of thousands of years ago, the sea level then was much lower – by more than a hundred meters. So it doesn’t take Sherlock to work out that ancient remains of tortoises should be searched for underwater!

One could counter this with the fact that the Polynesian islands were settled upon by man much later – some one or two thousand years ago. But those are islands! If there were any tortoises there then they ate them all up and threw away the bones into the sea. Any that remained on land were blown away by a hurricane, of which there are many around those parts.

And that’s why there are no ancient remains of giant tortoises: no bones, and no drawings on cave walls. But there is one exception! You’ll remember how the flat planet stands upon the backs of four elephants, right? But do you recall how those same elephants stood on the backs of… a giant turtle?!

So, why did a few survive on both the Seychelles and the Galápagos Islands? Easy. The Galápagos Islands were settled upon not long ago at all, relatively speaking, so Homo sapiens simply didn’t get the chance to destroy everything on the islands. And today, the islands’ tortoises are protected and cherished. And the Seychelles – they too were settled upon later than the norm: only after the mid-18th century. Before then only passing pirates and expeditions would visit the islands briefly. Thank goodness! Only because of that have giant tortoises survived to this day.

Alas, it’s not such a happy ending. Still today subspecies of these tortoises are becoming extinct. In 2012 the last of tortoise on Pinter Island – Lonesome George – passed away. He now stands – stuffed – in the local national park:

These days the tortoises are kept under close observation, records are kept on their number, and their eggs are often taken from the beach-burrows and put in incubators to guarantee survival and hatching. Freshly-hatched tortoises graze under the watchful eye of biologists at the tortoise conservation centers – which tourists are even allowed in to:

So the future looks so bright for the giant tortoises here, they’ve got to wear shades ).

One condition for entrance into the center – no touching the tortoises! Ahhh, such a shame; in the Seychelles the tortoises loved their necks being scratched!

Want to feel what it’s like to be a tortoise – literally? Knock yourself out!…

Even Midori Kuma was here at the tortoise center! He does get around…

All the photos from Ecuadorian-Gray and the Oh-my-Galápagos are here.

Comments 3 Leave a note

    James Marion

    Thanks Eugene!


    Dear Eugene,

    I like your theory, very ingenious , particularly the bones flying away..never to be found.

    My theory is much simpler, it also has to do with flying, but it rests on the fact that this is Darwinian land and all things are possible , ..therefore once upon a time emerging from the chemical soup, were these creatures with wings . They flew all over the globe looking for a resting place and eventually as one group got tired, guess what , they decided to descend to a more solid place to rest. Various groups tired at various different times and speeds and rested in various different places and then something logical happened, their wings turned into sun shades and why? to create protection from the then scorching sun and as the sun cooled down their shades cooled down too and hardened to create a house for them to live in.


    The once schematically clever creatures became even more clever (evolving) and decided to take it easy and slow…

    It all depends on the world view one holds :)


    I do apologise, I’ve forgotten the most crucial and concluding part of my Darwinian story..

    The bones never to be found…

    adaptation is the key…
    When the sun heated up again, their houses softened and turned back into shades and then wings and then (as they now are very smart) flew away very fast (to escape) , hence their bones were never to be found.


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