Wisdom From The Experts Pt 4 & 5

Two Turtle and Tort experts, two related pieces of wisdom to share about turtle and tortoise anatomy! 

Lori Neuman-Lee, PhD (@CheloniaGirl ), prof at Utah State University, says – “I wish people knew that turtles can’t come out of their shells…because their shells are part of their skeleton! So cool!”

Alicia Wishart (@waffles_tort), Animal Educator at Reptilia Zoo, Artist, and Humom to our favorite Tortie-Trifecta Waffles, Mango, and Tortellini, wishes more people knew  “They can feel through their shells. I get lots of people knocking on their shells like it’s a rock but they can feel that pressure and vibration. Nice pets and skritches are much more enjoyable”. 

It’s a common misconception that turtles and tortoise wear their shell like a suit of armor that they can take on and off. It’s just not true.  As you can see in the images above, their shell is really an extension of their rib cage and spine (which extends out as their tail… so lift them by their tails! ) 

(From thetortoiseshop.com

The whole shell of the tortoise is made up of numerous small bones which are covered by separate plates of keratin called scutes. As a tortoise grows, extra layers of keratin are added underneath the existing layer, causing “growth rings”. Contrary to popular belief, a tortoise cannot be accurately aged by counting these rings. However they can tell us approximately how many spurts of growth the tortoise has had, thus we could also gauge what type of seasonal changes the tortoise has in its natural environment. 

It’s interesting to note that Keratin is a key part of the makeup of the outer layer of human skin, also hair and nails.  In reptiles, however, its shells, scales, and of course nails.  Its waterproof and tough and functions as turtle and tortoises main defense against predators. 

It was long thought that turtle and tortoise shells lacked any nerve endings and thus weren’t able to feel through their shell. Well, that theory is has been proven as false as the theory that the earth is flat. Turtles and torts are far more sensitive to touch than many realize, including their shells. They are very capable of feeling even a light touch of the shell.  

This is important information too many don’t know. It’s particularly awful when you think about humans carving initials or drilling holes in their shells, a serious no way,  but also unpleasant when you think about what the knocking Alicia mentioned.

Imagine something 10x your size coming up to you and giving you a strong knock on the head over and over. Not cool! Don’t do that. Stick to gentle pets and wanted head scratches when showing our shell friends some love. If you see a shell in the wild? They aren’t used to humans at all so enjoy from a far cause again, a giant hand from a creature you’ve never seen coming towards you? I might protest pee and I don’t live off the water reserves in my bladder like a tortoise. 

So yeah, Wise words from more of our experts! Do a little reading about turtle and tortoise anatomy and you’ll be able to handle your shell with the care they require.  

There’s a little more here and if you’re really interested I can suggest plenty of books to check out just let me know! 

Words of Wisdom from the Experts Pt 3-

“I wish people knew how smart turtles are. They learn quickly where their food comes from; if from a human then they learn that specific person”

Is what Michelle Kelly (@MichelleKellyCW), public speaker about Reptiles and amphibians, wishes more people knew about turtles and tortoises.

Those of us who spend time with turtles and tortoise know how true this is but, in reality, most people hear “turtles are smart” and give you a funny look and make a slow joke.

Research on turtle and tortoise cognition has been growing in recent years and the studies have blown all our assumptions out of the water.  Turtles and tortoises are intelligent creatures with cognition that moves beyond the natural instincts they are born with.

The studies have shown that turtles and tortoise have strong object memory as well as problem-solving skills. In situations like maze tests, they are able to assess and identify a path to their goal. When landmarks are removed they are able to assess and adapt, finding their way to the goal regardless. Pretty awesome.

"What makes these results especially impressive is the fact that tortoises do not have a hippocampus – the part of the brain that humans and other mammals use for memory, spatial navigation, and learning in general. So what part of their brains is at work during such tests? Something called the medial cortex, according to Dr. Wilkinson.

This brain part is present in humans as well and is linked to decision making and other complex cognition. – Dr. Anna Wilkins on her study of red foot tortoise cognition via Animal Intelligence.

Some skills are species specific. For example, terrestrial turtles and tortoises have a stronger spatial sense than aquatic turtles. This serves their respective needs as the ability to assess how deep a hole is or identify a cliff they could fall from, is important on land and not in the water.

Multiple studies confirm that Turtles and tortoises are quick learners. Makes sense considering they must learn and navigate the world on their on from the moment they hatch. They show social learning abilities using skills like gaze following, something long thought to be exclusive to primates.

What does gaze following mean? in the wild, they can follow the gaze of other animals to identify potential risks or where the noms are!  Captive? Imagine you notice a weak spot in their enclosure. You’re looking at it thinking how to secure it. Well, make sure your tort isn’t watching cause you’re gaze directing them right to trouble. SNEAKY!

This is all to say our shell friends are smart creatures and our engagement with them is meaningful. Their ability to learn who we are, the food bringers, the human that doesn’t require caution any longer… They learn us, we learn them. People don’t realize this happens with our turtles and torts.

It also means, turtles and tortoises in the wild know what they’re doing. Helping them means getting them out of the road in the direction they’re going, not deciding where they end up. They know and they’re stubborn. haha

We still know very little but the research continues to grow, as does all the anecdotal research we shell keepers have to back it up. It’s fascinating stuff. 

Here are some great articles on Turtle and tortoise cognition if you want to learn more. They’re fascinating reads!

Cold Blooded does not mean stupid http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/19/science/coldblooded-does-not-mean-stupid.html

Cold-Blooded Cognition – Tortoises quick on the uptake https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21228440-500-cold-blooded-cognition-tortoises-quick-on-the-uptake/

Tortoises Show Off Smarts Mastering Touch-Screen Tech http://www.livescience.com/47155-tortoise-touchscreen-learning.html

Tortoises Can Master Mazes http://www.animalcognition.org/2015/04/03/tortoises-can-master-mazes/

Words of wisdom from the experts pt 2

Check out this INCREDIBLE photo by Amanda Hipps, @biophilamanda, one of the experts who responded to our #worldturtleday question. Amanda studies the animals that live in gopher tortoise burrows. In case you didn’t know, gopher tortoise burrows are home to hundreds of other animals. Their status as endangered directly impacts the lives of 360 other animals ability to survive. Conservation matters! 

We asked her to share a little more about this photo and her work with the gopher tortoises and their many roommates: 

Gopher tortoises are the only native tortoise species in the southeastern US. They dig burrows up to 40 feet in length for protection from weather, fire, and predators, and are considered a keystone species because their burrows also provide refuge for over 360 other animals. Gopher tortoises are listed as federally threatened in Florida, and some animals, such as the indigo snake, are directly impacted by the gopher tortoises decline. This photo of the gopher tortoise and the southern toad was taken during the midday, summer heat in south Florida which is likely the reason the southern toad is taking refuge underground with the tortoise.

Many issues contribute to the decline of gopher tortoises, but their most significant threat today is habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation due to urban development. One way everyone can help with gopher tortoise conservation is by supporting conservation land-acquisition programs. In order to protect the gopher tortoise and the many species that depend on them, protection of their remaining habitats, as well as habitat restoration and management, should be of the highest priority.

Words of Wisdom from the Experts Pt. 1

This year, in honor of #WorldTurtleDay, we asked herpetologists, biologists, rescues, and rehabbers, to tell us what they wish more people knew about Turtles and Tortoises.  Starting today we’ll be sharing a few responses a day! Let’s learn more about the animals we love from people who have devoted their lives to protecting them. 

Biologist and fellow tumblrite @typhlonectes shares some important perspective and a call to action. 

I want people to know that a lot of turtles are in trouble. Out of the 325+ species of turtle in the world, up to a 3rd of them are in trouble in some way, some them critically endangered, some even extinct in the wild, living only in captivity now.

Turtles face threats from overcollection as food, overcollection for the pet industry, and habitat destruction.

People can and should help threatened and endangered turtles through conservation organizations like: