Holiday snaps: giant tortoise!

January 24, 2010 • 10:35 am

The islands of the Galápagos are supposedly named after their most famous endemic animal, the giant tortoise (“Galapagos” is Spanish for “tortoise”, and may derive from the Spanish word for saddle, derived from the shape of their shells.) While some zoologists recognize as many as 15 species, the current consensus is that there is only one —Geochelone nigra— with several subspecies. These differ among islands in several traits, most notably shell shape.  Several of the subspecies are extinct, and one is represented by a single surviving animal, the famous “Lonesome George” (see below).  All the subspecies (or species) descend from a single colonization of the archipelago by one ancestor a few million years ago.

A big male tortoise can weigh more than 500 pounds, and the animals clearly live a long time: some estimates are 150 years or more, giving rise to the possibility that some living tortoises were alive when Darwin wrote The Origin. In fact, one tortoise in an Australian zoo, Harriet, was originally, and probably incorrectly, thought to have been collected by Darwin himself.  Harriet died in 2006 at the presumed age of 175 years.

DNA-based dating from Jeffrey Powell’s lab at Yale puts the age of the original colonization between 3 and 2 million years ago. That lab also determined that the closest living relative of the Galápagos animals is the much smaller (8″) chaco tortoise of South America (Geochelone chilensis), with the ancestor making its way to the islands across 600 km of water.

Islands with lush vegetation harbor animals with shallow domed shells (see Santa Cruz tortoise below), but the drier islands have animals with “saddle-backed” shells (see Lonesome George below), which enables them to stretch out their necks and browse on taller plants, notably the cacti such as Opuntia that attain tree-like heights on the islands.  The tortoises are completely herbivorous.

Tortoise in the wild (well, on a farm in Santa Cruz island where they roam freely); this beast shows the dome-shaped shell characteristic of wetter islands with lush ground vegetation:

Fig. 1.  Santa Cruz (Indefatigable) Island tortoise, G. n. porteri (Rothschild, 1903)

One tortoise showed a bizarre behavior that was explained to us by our naturalist, and is also described in Wikipedia:

Tortoises have a classic example of a mutualistic symbiotic relationship with some species of Galápagos finch. The finch hops in front of the tortoise to show that it is ready and the tortoise then raises itself up high on its legs and stretches out its neck so that the bird can pick off ticks that are hidden in the folds of the skin (especially on the rear legs, cloacal opening, neck, and skin between plastron and carapace), thus freeing the tortoise from harmful parasites and providing the finch with an easy meal. Other birds, including Galápagos Hawk and flycatchers, use tortoises as observation posts from which to sight their prey.

To wit:

Fig. 2.  Clean me!

We were told that we might be able to elicit this behavior by moving an index finger up and down in front of the tortoise, but that didn’t work. Whether this behavior is evolved or learned is an interesting question.

Rescue of endangered subspecies is carried out by breeding at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz island.  Here the adults are mated to produce eggs, and young animals are brought up (separated by subspecies) in enclosures, safe from predation by dogs and other feral animals. The adults have no known predators, either natural or introduced.  Let me revise that: their most serious predator is Homo sapiens. Humans have driven at least four subspecies to extinction. It’s appalling to read the chronicles of early sailors, who simply took dozens of these animals aboard as a living food source.  In Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin claims that some ships left the islands with as many as 700 animals!

As is well known, Darwin botched his collections of these animals, taking only a few shells and a handful of living animals. He didn’t follow up suggestions by others that each island had its own morphologically distinguishable population of tortoises.

Fig 3.   Lunchtime at the Charles Darwin research station. This individual (whose subspecies I didn’t record) has the flaring, saddle-shaped shell characteristic of tortoises from dry islands.

At the Charles Darwin Research station on Santa Cruz lives the most famous last-individual-of-the-group animal in the world, Lonesome George.  Collected in the early 1970s, George is the last remaining individual of the Pinta Island subspecies, G. nigra abingdoni.  He’s currently confined (see below) with two females of the Isabel island subspecies in a desperate attempt to bring back his kind.  The females have produced several clutches of eggs, but none have hatched (I was told that another batch is incubating now.)

Fig. 4.  Lonesome George (left) and a would-be bride.

Fig. 5. Nice perch if you can get it. The endemic Galápagos lava lizard Tropidurus albemarlensis atop a tortoise.

Fig. 6.  Channelling the inner reptile (h/t: Otter).

Note that there’s one other archipelago-bound giant tortoise, the Aldabra Giant tortoise that lives on three Indian Ocean islands in the Seychelles. (Its population, around 150,000 animals, is far more numerous than that of the Galápagos tortoise, whose total population is around 10,000.) Although the Aldabra species is placed in the same genus as the Galápagos tortoise, G. gigantea, it’s not a close relative, and is often given the name Aldabrachelys gigantea, which appears to be taxonomically invalid.

It’s hard not to feel affection for this gentle, lumbering giant who doesn’t harm another creature but is so beleaguered itself.  Kudos to the scientists and conservationists of the Galápagos who have brought the giant tortoise back from extinction.


For more information:

Caccone, A. G. Gentile, J.P. Gibbs, T.H. Fritts, H.L. Snell, J. Betts and J.R. Powell. 2002.  Phylogeography and history of giant Galápagos tortoises. Evolution 56 :2052–2066. Full Text via CrossRef

Caccone, A. G., J. P. Gibbs, V. Ketmaier, E. Suatoni, and J. R. Powell. 1999.  Origin and evolutionary relationships of giant Galapagos tortoises.  Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA. 96:13223-13228 (link here).

Powell, J. and A. Caccone. 2006. Quick guide:  Giant tortoises.   Current Biology 16:R144-R145

Sulloway, F.  2009.  Tantalizing tortoises and the Darwin-Galápagos legend. Journal of the History of Biology 42:3-31 (link here).

Darwin on tortoises (from the Beagle journal):

The inhabitants believe that these animals are absolutely deaf; certainly they do not overhear a person walking close behind them. I was always amused when overtaking one of these great monsters, as it was quietly pacing along, to see how suddenly, the instant I passed, it would draw in its head and legs, and uttering a deep hiss fall to the ground with a heavy sound, as if struck dead. I frequently got on their backs, and then giving a few raps on the hinder part of their shells, they would rise up and walk away; — but I found it very difficult to keep my balance. The flesh of this animal is largely employed, both fresh and salted; and a beautifully clear oil is prepared from the fat. When a tortoise is caught, the man makes a slit in the skin near its tail, so as to see inside its body, whether the fat under the dorsal plate is thick. If it is not, the animal is liberated and it is said to recover soon from this strange operation. In order to secure the tortoise, it is not sufficient to turn them like turtle, for they are often able to get on their legs again.

The chaco tortoise, closest living relative of the Galápagos giants:

7 thoughts on “Holiday snaps: giant tortoise!

  1. What sub-species is that on the right in figure 6? 🙂

    Why the designation of sub-species instead of species? Is it because they can still interbreed?

    1. Whenever there are closely related allopatric (i.e. geographically separated) populations, a judgement call must be made as to whether to consider them species, subspecies, or to not recognize them taxonomically at all. Allopatry means that the populations are not currently interbreeding, so an inference must be made as to the likely relations of the populations should they come into geographic contact. The mere physical separation is not evidence of the existence of reproductive isolating barriers. As an example, the gray squirrels of Manhattan are not recognized as a species distinct from the gray squirrels of New Jersey, even though squirrels do not, at the moment, cross the Hudson to interbreed terribly often (especially at a human lifetime scale– in the course of the Ice Ages, squirrel populations up and down the East coast have coalesced, separated, and gone extinct multiple times). In the case of the Galapagos tortoises, the inference is not so easy, since they are much more differentiated between islands than the squirrels are, and there might be isolating barriers between them. But Jerry’s report of the consensus is correct– they are generally ranked as subspecies, although some would argue for species status.

  2. Great post, Jerry – always good to read stories about our scaled & shelled friends!

    Check out this paper for an early take on tortoise-bird cleaning mutualisms — this one from Aldabra: Huxley C.R. (1979). The tortoise and the rail. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 286, 225-230.

    PS: Aldabrachelys will hopefully be the consensus solution of an ongoing tortoise-taxonomy debate in the BZN… (since Geochelone is rampantly polyphyletic — and for the same reason, the Galapagos tortoises should more correctly be referred to as belonging to Chelonoidis).
    PPS: Come to Mauritius or Rodrigues to see some tortoise-ghost-resurrection in action…!
    PPPPPPP…enough of all these P’s already! 😉

  3. Fig 6 = fantastic & should be on the cover of your next book – make sure the Otter gets a royalty for that too!

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