Sunday 30 November 2008

Testudines (Photo special)

Testudines, or Chelonia, is the name given to the order of reptiles which contains the shelled reptiles, that is, tortoises, turtles and terrapins. Over the last few months I have seen quite a few of the Testudines, and as they are not exactly fast movers, I have managed to get good photographs of them.

Balkan stripe-necked terrapin
Mauremys rivulata (Valenciennes, 1843)
Geoemydidae; Testudines; Sauropsida; Chordata
Famagusta, North Cyprus
October 2008

The small, freshwater chelonians are generally known as terrapins. Not always, though. The Balkan stripe-necked terrapin is one of a few related stripe-necked terrapins from parts of Europe and Asia, with M. rivulata being the one found wild in Cyprus and parts of eastern Europe. This specimen was not wild, however. We were sitting in a cafe in Famagusta which had a small aviary containing doves, cockatiels, budgerigars and canaries, and a large indoor fountain with two terrapins: one of which was this one; the other was a red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans), the terrapin commonly sold as a household pet. It was difficult to tell that were real, as they weren’t moving, until I got close to the stripe-necked terrapin, and it retracted its head like it was wearing a pullover and its ears were cold. The white eye is distinctive.

African spurred tortoise
Geochelone sulcata (Miller, 1779)
Testudinidae; Testudines; Sauropsida; Chordata
Van Hage Animal Garden, Ware, Hertfordshire
November 2008

Before I talk about the tortoise, I have to mention the place where it was photographed. The Van Hage garden centre is near Ware in Hertfordshire, and is a short walk from the train station, which is set in the wonderful surrounds of a canal and a nearby wetland, and there is an excellent pub nearby, the John Gilpin. The garden centre is fairly standard, with the usual things you find in one, but it is unique in having a small “animal garden” at the back. It is a fully licensed zoo, except it is free to get into! They have the usual pets and farm animals, including ferrets, finches, turkeys, chickens, rabbits and pygmy goats, as well as the less every-day striped skunk, ring-tailed coatis, meerkats, Edward’s pheasants and barn owls. I recommend a visit if you’re in the area.

The last time I visited, it was raining, but I was surprised to see a new addition to their collection, the African spurred tortoise. It was sitting in its indoor enclosure (it had the choice of an outdoor run, but it was November and of not good weather), under a heat lamp, with vegetables to munch on. I hadn’t seen this species before, which gets its name from the sharply keeled scales on the legs.

Aldabra giant tortoise
Dipsochelys dussumieri (Gray, 1831)
Testudinidae; Testudines; Sauropsida; Chordata
London Zoo
November 2008

When most people think of giant tortoises, their thoughts often go to the Galapagos Islands, the archipelago made famous by Charles Darwin, or the one from the title sequence of One Foot in the Grave. There are other species of giant tortoises, however, and the one photographed here is from the island of Aldabra in the Seychelles. They are now believed to belong to a different genus though; both were included in Geochelone for a long time, but the Aldabra species is now in Dipsochelys with its close relatives, and the Galapagos one is in Chelonoidis with some other, much smaller, South American tortoises.

The specimen I saw at London Zoo was probably not fully grown, as it wasn’t very giant. It was sharing its enclosure with another reptile, not a chelonian, but a Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), quite an unlikely bedfellow.

Radiated tortoises
Astrochelys radiata (Shaw, 1802)
Testudinidae; Testudines; Sauropsida; Chordata
London Zoo
November 2008

Found only in Madagascar and the nearby islands of Reunion and Mauritius, the radiated tortoise (named after its “rays” on its shell) is considered Critically Endangered, as it is threatened by habitat loss (as usual), hunting for food and the pet trade. There is a captive breeding programme, however, and London Zoo is taking part in this, although their latest inventory states they have four individuals of “unknown sex”, which would not be helpful in breeding!

Pancake tortoise
Malacochersus tornieri (Siebenrock, 1903)
Testudinidae; Testudines; Sauropsida; Chordata
London Zoo
November 2008

Most tortoises have rounded or peaked shells, but the pancake tortoise does not. As its name suggests, it has a flat shell, which helps it to hide in crevices that other tortoises could not.

Spur-thighed tortoise
Testudo graeca Linnaeus, 1758
Testudinidae; Testudines; Sauropsida; Chordata
Shepreth Wildlife Park, Cambridgeshire
September 2008

I caught these two spur-thighed tortoises in the process of making more spur-thighed tortoises. The male, as is common in tortoises, makes odd noises during copulation, which never fails to entertain. The prelude (foreplay?) to this act was the male headbutting the female’s shell, quite hard, might I add. I thought at first it was aggression, but no, soon after, he mounted her and began procreating.

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