What is a tortoise?

Difference between a turtle and a tortoise (in general terms):

Tortoise:

  • Typically high-domed shell
  • Elephantine-type feet, stumped, designed to carry weight of the carapace (shell) over land
  • Typically vegetarian-based diet
  • Never blamed for Salmonella contamination (A note on Salmonella contamination)

Turtle:

  • Typically low, flat shell
  • Webbed feet for paddling through the water
  • Typically protein-based diet
  • Live primarily in/around water
  • Frequently blamed for Salmonella contamination

Anatomy of a tortoise:

  • Reptile, cold blooded, three chambered-hart, lays hard-shelled eggs in the ground and abandons them.
  • Protected by a shell or carapace that is similar to none. The carapace is calcified and covered with plate-like scales called scutes. The scutes are made of keratin, like your fingernails. The carapace is designed to protect against fall, jaws of preditors, and the sun.
  • Below the scutes and carapace is the rest of the skeleton. The vertebral column and the pleural bones make up interior support of the shell. The ribs insert into the peripheral plates that ring the shell and attach to the plastron beneath. The shell of a tortoise is as strong as any skeletal feature in the animal world.
  • Neck of eight vertebrae can retract inside to conceal and protect the head. Two lungs under the dome of the carapace are well protected. The rib cage is fixed thus, not any help with respiration. The neck, arm, and leg muscles aid with respirations by changing air pressure in the lungs with movement. Ever hear a tortoise ‘hiss?’ It’s actually an air exchange while rapidly pulling his head into his shell.

What makes them so cool?

  • The strength of a tortoise is impressive to almost unbelievable. The amount of muscle packed into their bodies, especially their legs and neck is impressive by any standards.
  • They all have their own personalities. Some are shy, social, mean, sweet, etc.
  • Almost every habitat type on Earth has a tortoise in its ecology.
  • As they get older they get better. Fertility increases as the years increase.
  • They are living dinosaurs, virtually unchanged from the fossil record.

Ecological role of the tortoise:

  • Seed dispersers
  • Forest floor vacuums: eat snails, slugs, insects, ground nesting bird eggs, and young, small rodents
  • Scavengers: eat the remains of dead animals, bones, flesh, organs
  • Prey animals: tortoise hatchlings feed birds, small and medium-sized mammals, larger mammals can break shells with teeth or tools (chimpanzees)