Do tortoises need glasses?

March 26, 2012 • 5:20 pm

by Greg Mayer

This young tortoise is having a hard time getting a bite of this piece of tomato.

I’m not sure what kind of tortoise it is– it looks like a member of the genus Testudo, which consists of about four species with a bunch of subspecies from southern Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia (see tortoise references below). [UPDATE: Testudo are fairly common in the pet trade– can anyone identify the little feller? UPDATE II: Readers Christopher McLaughlin and Derek have identified it as Geochelone sulcata, a species from the Sahel-Sudan region just south of the Sahara. ]

The tortoise’s seeming inability to adjust its angle of attack reminds me of the behavior of lizards I have fed by putting food in a clear glass dish. They see the food, and keep butting their head into the side of the dish, not realizing that if they lifted their head up, and then bit down over the side of the bowl, they’d get it.

Cats are familiar with the concept of glass, and know, for example, how to enter a room via the open part of a sliding glass door, and don’t keep walking into the glass.

h/t: Matthew


M. Le, C.J. Raxworthy, and W.P. McCord. 2006. A molecular phylogeny of tortoises (Testudines: Testudinidae) based on mitochondrial and nuclear genes. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 40:517-531. pdf

Rhodin, A.G.J., J.B. Iverson, and H.B. Shaffer. 2010 Turtles of the world, 2010 update. Chelonian Research Monographs 5:85-164. pdf

20 thoughts on “Do tortoises need glasses?

  1. Maybe if you crossed a tortiose with a cat…

    I read about a genetic cross of a tortoise with a lowland gorilla. THe result was a hard-shelled ape called a Tortilla. Males customarily produced a loud drumming noise by beating on their shell fronts. As a result, all the male tortillas were deaf. Their mating call was “Huh?”

  2. I’ve noticed this in testudines before, and not just in young ones, nor in cases when someone is holding their food for them. It’s certainly odd, particularly as I don’t think that you see anything like this in other turtles or tortoises. The odd miss, perhaps, but not all of this waving around.

  3. Urban South American Rufous-collared Sparrows are also able to understand glass, and know how to walk around sliding glass doors to get into rooms. They have to learn it, though.

  4. This tortoise must just be so young it’s still learning the basics: still be working on mouth-eye coordination. I’ve watched a lot of tortoises (Gopherus agasizii, mostly) eat and never seen one miss what it was aiming at.

  5. it’s a sulcata. sub-Saharan Africa. Common pets but get big quick and people dump them, if they don’t kill them first through bad care and feeding. usually, they hit the food with their noses first, as a clumsy attempt at smelling to make sure it’s food. but, glasses? naw, just a goofy lil’ tyke learning how to eat. all babies are goofy that way.

  6. This is why the traditional, paraphyletic “Reptilia” needs to be ditched. The good name of Squamata is sullied by association with lowly Testudines.

    1. But they’d still be together in a clade within the Amniota that excludes Mammalia, so you can’t get rid of your turtle brethren that easily!


  7. I desperately want a tortoise as a pet and have for some time now. They breed in captivity right? I just want to make sure that I wouldn’t be supporting anything bad.

    Might wind up adopting one in the end

    1. yeah, people breed them.
      They don’t stay little and cute.
      And if you take decent care of it, you’ll be taking decent care of it for 50 years.
      Be aware.

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