Tag Archive: tortoise


Copulating Flies. Image taken in Iquitos, Peru.

While this video has penguins mating, which is clumsy comedy, my favorite part is the little bit of penguin voyeurism. Watch the behavior of the penguins around the young couple.

Don’t have a Valentine? Don’t worry. This leopard tortoise can show you how it’s done. He just found himself a nice log…

Last, but not least, the delicate dance of mating cuttlefish:

On a side note, Backyard Zoologist is going to be updated two days a week now, on Mondays and Fridays. I will resume the three-days-per-week schedule in the fall.

desert tortoise

A desert tortoise cruising around in the Mojave Desert.

This cutey is a desert tortoise, a beloved species that is the state reptile of both California and Nevada. I ran into this individual with my herpetology class in the Mojave Desert, near the Zzyzx desert station. It was my first ever glimpse of a wild tortoise! Despite the fact that they are large and slow moving (they “run” at between .13 and .3mph), I considered myself quite lucky to get a chance to spot one. Because of the harsh desert climate that can reach up to 140° F (!!), the desert tortoise survives by digging underground burrows to escape the incredible heat. And still, from November through February, it can get really cold, so the tortoises remain dormant and protect themselves from freezing by living in burrows. These things together means that these tortoises will spend 95% of their life in a burrow. So seeing one out and about was quite a privilege, though we increased our odds by  choosing a good time of day and season.

desert tortoise

This picture shows two important features of the desert tortoise-its gular horn and its long digging nails. Image taken in the Mojave Desert.

This picture shows two important features of the desert tortoise. Notice the long nails on its feet for digging those oh so important burrows I was talking about. But they dig for another reason too.  As they live in an environment that has very little rainfall, water is incredibly scarce. These tortoises get most of their water from the vegetation they eat. But, they have an extra trick to get some extra water-they dig catchment basins in the soil. They will remember the location of the basins that they created and can even be found waiting by them when rain is near!

The second feature is its gular horn, which is the part of its shell poking out from under its head. Both sexes have a gular horn, but it’s larger on the males. Males will use these to fight other males by trying to flip their opponent onto their back. The males will fight at any time of year and usually the fight ends with one of the tortoises running away. Despite their fighting, where there are burrows that can hold several individuals, the tortoises will share. As soon as they leave the burrow, the males will begin fighting again, but protection from the extreme heat is just too important.

Aside from the extreme climate, desert tortoises have another struggle. Getting enough calcium for those shells, which make up approximately 80% of their skeleton, can be very difficult. Although they are herbivores, because of their need for calcium, they will occasionally chew on bones to help meet that need.

I mentioned earlier that these animals are beloved and I was serious. They have some pretty powerful friends. In particular, Dianne Feinstein has a fondness for the tortoise (in fact one of the desert tortoises at the San Francisco Zoo has the middle name “Dianne Feinstein” as a recognition for all of her tortoise support). Desert tortoises are listed as threatened both federally and by the state of California and they played a key roll in the passage of the California Desert Protection Act in 1994, which has just been updated this year to include more protections, again specifically because of the desert tortoise. The reasons for their declining populations are many, including the usual culprits. They live a really long time (60-80 years in the wild, longer in captivity.) and they are late to reproduce. When they are younger, for the first few years they have a soft shell and predation is a major problem; in particular an increase in the raven population due to an increase of food from people’s garbage has led to an increase in predation on tortoises. But one of the worst problems to date has been problems with pets. People collect the tortoises as pets and when they don’t want them anymore or when they outlive the original owner some folks have thought it a wonderful idea to release the former pets into the wild. This has led to the spread of a horrible respiratory disease that has been fatal to many wild tortoises. These tortoises are not good pets and because of their protected status, it is illegal to collect a desert tortoise. So remember:


desert tortoise sign

This sign is a reminder that it is illegal to even touch a wild desert tortoise. Image taken at Zzyzx research station.

If you are lucky enough to come across a wild desert tortoise, don’t touch it! It is illegal and can be fatal to the tortoise. These tortoises store extra water in their bladders, which can still be used, but if they are scared, they will sometimes release this excess water, increasing their likelihood of dehydration. With all of the natural problems they have to face, the last thing they need is avoidable human caused problems.

Green mantella

The green mantella. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

Once again, this is a post that is highlighting animals that are listed as endangered or critically endangered by the IUCN red list. You can find part one of this group here. In the first part, I wrote about the purpose of these posts and I’d like to reiterate that:

“This post was not meant to be so sad, but to be a chance to learn more about animal species that aren’t doing so well and to see and appreciate them while we still can. There have been many species that were endangered, but thanks to strong conservation efforts, are surviving or even thriving again (buffalo, bald eagles, brown pelicans, American alligators, peregrine falcons, Canada geese, gray wolves, gray whales-to name a few). In fact, these species are the face of conservation and can really bring about the best in people. We just have to continue to fight.”

Now to begin with the first endangered animal, pictured above. The green mantella is a small frog found mostly in northern Madagascar. Although they are very similar to poison dart frogs, in that they have toxic skin and are brightly colored, they are not closely related. Like much of the wildlife on this island, this frog is IUCN red listed as endangered mostly due to habitat loss, but also because of international trade from before the 90s, when they became protected. Although there are many problems facing wildlife in Madagascar, amphibians in general are facing major declines across the globe, not just on this one isolated island. To find out more about how and why we can and should stop amphibian decline, please check out save the frogs. If you’ve been following this blog for a while now, you have seen this name many times already. Save the Frogs has been working to tackle the amphibian decline problem from many fronts-by education, research, legislation and market pressure. They have accomplished a lot with relatively little. Their site has tons of helpful information on what you can do to save the frogs.

Visayan warty pigs

Visayan warty pigs, a critically endangered species. Image taken at the Oregon Zoo.

These sweet pigs are found only on a few islands in the Philippines. They are listed as critically endangered because their numbers are dropping rapidly due to habitat loss, hunting and interbreeding with domestic pigs. The few zoos that are housing these pigs are participating in an emergency breeding program to save these pigs from extinction. The Oregon Zoo’s website has some wonderful pictures of these pigs, including a male that has its breeding mane, which is a giant spiky poof of hair and quite an amusing sight, and it has a video of 3 unbearably adorable piglets born at the zoo as well as more information on the tragically named warty pigs.


A coelacanth specimen. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

The coelacanth is an interesting fish. It’s thought to have existed over 400 million years ago and was believed to have gone extinct 70 million years ago, since all we’d ever found was fossils. But, in 1938, a fisherman hooked one. Now more have been discovered. We still have a lot to learn about this critically endangered fish and scientists are eager to find out the secrets to its survival.

Sea otter

This sea otter is one of many from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's sea otter research and conservation program.

Sea otters have been facing all sorts of problems, both natural and human caused. Natural problems include predation and disease (although human pollution may also be partly responsible if it hinders their immune systems.) Of the current human caused problems, the worst is oil spills, which is particularly bad for them because unlike most marine mammals, otters don’t have a thick layer of blubber for insulation, but incredibly dense fur, which doesn’t work when it’s covered in oil. Being captured in nets and being hit by boats also pose problems. Still, there have been many protection efforts in place, including international agreements. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s sea otter and conservation program is just one example of these efforts. They raise and release stranded pups, treat and release injured otters, take care of otters that can’t return to the wild and conduct scientific research. (You can support this program here.) Otters are major predators of marine invertebrates and one of the problems we’ve seen because of their decline is an increase in sea urchins. Since sea urchins eat the holdfasts of kelp (the part that keeps them anchored down), they are tearing through kelp forests, which is also a hiding place and food source for a lot of other wildlife.

radiated tortoise

A young boy watches a critically endangered radiated tortoise. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

Radiated tortoises are critically endangered tortoises from Madagascar. This picture, with the little boy watching the tortoise moving about its exhibit, stood out to me when I read about the projections for this species. Without additional protection, these tortoises will become extinct in the little boy’s lifetime. In fact, at the current rate of decline, they’ll probably be extinct by the time he has grandchildren. Destruction of habitat is one of the problems facing this tortoise. So is collection, both for the pet trade and for their livers (why livers? I don’t know). But one of the biggest problems is from local people using the tortoises, mostly for food. This hasn’t been a problem in the past, because the Mahafaly and the Antandroy have a taboo against touching or eating the tortoises and their land covers the range of the radiated tortoises. But more people have moved to this region that will eat the tortoises, as well as Malagasy people who are just passing through. As far as future protection goes, Madagascar has been expanding its protected areas. Providing education and alternatives for local people is considered essential and so is careful monitoring of markets, traders, restaurants and the international pet trade. Perhaps with a lot of work, we can stop this species from going extinct.

Those in Need: Endangered Species Part 1

golden frog

A Panamanian golden frog, a.k.a a golden arrow poison frog, a critically endangered species. Image taken at the Oakland Zoo.

This post is going to highlight some animals that have been red listed by the IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature) as endangered or critically endangered.

The Panamanian golden frog (shown above) has become the icon for the amphibian decline movement. This frog has been part of legend and myth in Panama and is a symbol for good luck. There’s even pictures of this frog on their lottery tickets! However, due to habitat loss, chemicals and now a horrible outbreak of the chytrid fungus, these animals are so near extinction that zoos, government agencies and universities both in the United States and in Panama have joined together to protect it, while simultaneously increasing awareness about global amphibian declines. Project Golden Frog is focused on education, research, habitat preservation and captive breeding programs, such as the one at the Oakland Zoo, where this picture was taken. Have I mentioned Save the Frogs?


African Penguin

Ocio, an African penguin. This species was just recently IUCN red listed as endangered. Image taken at the California Academy of Sciences.

The African penguin has just this year been listed as endangered. The IUCN spent over a year examining the data and finally concluded that this species should be listed due to rapid population declines. There are many reasons why the number of African penguins is dropping, but one of the major ones is lack of food. They are competing with commercial fisheries and there has been an eastward shift of the current that carries their prime fish supply. Have I mentioned Seafood Watch, to prevent similar problems from happening to North American birds?


Spider tortoise

A spider tortoise, critically endangered. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

This very tiny tortoise (I’m holding him in one hand while I take this picture) is from Madagascar. It was just listed as critically endangered in 2008. These animals are very habitat specific and they have lost and are losing habitat at an incredible rate. This species qualifies as critically endangered because it has lost (or will lose, if current rates continue) 90% of its habitat in only 3 generations. To make matters worse, what habitat they do have is severely fragmented. Also, radiated tortoises (another critically endangered species we’ll see in a future post) have suffered major population declines and people who previously sought radiated tortoises for food are now switching to the spider tortoise, so increased “hunting” pressure is also causing a population drop. This species is projected to be completely extinct in 60-80 years without protection and if current trends persist.

Black Rhino

Elly, a black rhino who has contributed immensely to conservation programs. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

This rhino is my home girl. I adore Elly. She was one of the first animals to really have me wondering about and researching conservation efforts-my first real connection to an endangered animal. She let me feed her son- her baby rhino number 13, Moja Doga.

Elly is part of a black rhino breeding program at the San Francisco Zoo. She has the world record for having the most calves in captivity-and she is a very good mommy. She’s retired now and is not going to have any more young. But her babies have gone out into the world to  help protect rhinos.

You might be wondering-how does captive breeding help protect the black rhinos as a species? The answer comes in 3 parts. The first is education and making that connection, like the one I mentioned above. While it is incredibly important that we protect ecosystems and not just individual animals, making that first connection will draw people into the world of conservation action. I know. As a city girl, I had never really thought about rhinos until I got to know one. The second is research. Raising animals in captivity means that we can learn more about their reproduction, behavior, genetics, dung (very interesting stuff going on there) and more without disturbing animals in the wild. The third is breed and release programs. In programs like these, animals are raised in captivity and then released, increasing the wild population and genetic diversity.  Release programs have just begun in 2008 in Kenya, with the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Zoological Society of London. Before any release program begins, the problems facing the animals should be addressed (as much as possible) and a protocol for releasing the animals established, to ensure that the animals are able to survive once released.  The animals are also tagged, so they can be monitored and to allow scientists to conduct studies. All of this continues to take place as we speak. I’m happy to report that despite a bad 2009, black rhino numbers are on the rise. But their numbers are still low and much more work needs to be done. These animals are still listed as critically endangered, due to an over 90% population decline in ~60 years.

Scalloped hammerhead shark

A scalloped hammerhead shark, listed as endangered. Image taken at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The scalloped hammerhead shark is one of many shark species that is not doing too well in the wild. They are often easy targets for shark finners because they tend to live in large schools. Their fins are also highly prized because they have a lot of fin rays. Shark finning is a problem for many species of shark, usually to make shark fin soup, which is considered a delicacy to some. It is however really high in mercury (often above FDA suggested daily limits) and I’m told it’s tough and tasteless. Still, it is believed that if you eat shark fin, you won’t get cancer. This is simply not true. In fact, the excess of mercury can adversely effect your health. Anyway, when shark finners catch sharks, they cut off their fins and then dump the rest of the shark-often still alive-back into the water to die. It is brutal and disgusting. The other serious problem facing these sharks is that they are frequently caught as by-catch. These two things combined has lead to some population decreases of 50-90% in the last 32 years. Have I mentioned Seafood Watch, which lets you know which fisheries use methods that minimize by-catch?

This post was not meant to be so sad, but to be a chance to learn more about animal species that aren’t doing so well and to see and appreciate them while we still can. There have been many species that were endangered, but thanks to strong conservation efforts, are surviving or even thriving again (buffalo, bald eagles, brown pelicans, American alligators, peregrine falcons, Canada geese, gray wolves, gray whales-to name a few). In fact, these species are the face of conservation and can really bring about the best in people. We just have to continue to fight.

Hands off Pardner


Desert tortoises are endangered and protected by law! Image taken at Zzyzx desert station in California.

Desert tortoises are threatened and protected by law. It is illegal to handle a wild desert tortoise. When they are threatened, they will empty their storage and anal bladders, which is not only unpleasant, but often leads them to dehydration before they can get to more water.