Shellebrity’s” of the Reptilian World

By Khevin Barnes

If you’re over fifty years of age you will likely remember those tiny turtles we had as pets in days past.  Most every elementary school room had one of these on display for kids to enjoy. In my third grade class at Walt Disney Elementary School in Anaheim, California we each took turns cleaning the water in the plastic tank that held our turtle, along with its miniature plastic palm tree. And every week each student would sign up to be in charge of feeding the tiny reptile.  It was an honorable title for a kid to be named “Feeder of the Turtle” for a week, and the privilege was usually rewarded based on our weekly spelling test results.  Consequently, it wasn’t often that I was the recipient of that coveted position. But I enjoyed watching him never-the-less.

In 1975, the FDA banned the sale of turtle eggs and turtles with shells less than 4 inches long in response to potential links between turtles and Salmonella infection in children. That ended the live biology lessons in class rooms, but my fascination with the species remained.

When I was in the sixth grade my older brother brought home a box turtle one day. We spent a week pondering various names to call him, debating the merits of each possibility and in the end, due to a severe case of “turtle naming fatigue”, we settled on “Tortie”.   While certainly not original, it worked well for the several years we had him.

Box turtles are North American turtles of the genus Terrapene, and although they are similar to tortoises in terrestrial habits and overall appearance, they are actually members of the American pond turtle family. 

Now, this is where the story gets complicated.

Our box turtle was definitely a terrestrial animal although he did like to spend time wading in the water. But didn’t that distinction make him a tortoise?  I grew up thinking that the difference between a turtle and a tortoise was that “turtles live in the water and tortoises live on land”. So the question is, “what’s the difference between turtles and tortoises”?  It seems that our notions about our shelled friends are all wet. So here’s the truth:

A tortoise is a turtle, but a turtle isn’t a tortoise.

Yikes. If that hasn’t shattered your shell, let me explain it in a little more detail. A turtle is any shelled reptile belonging to the order Chelonii. The term “tortoise” is more specific, referring to terrestrial turtles. Of course, there’s always an exception, and in this case it was “Tortie”, our little box turtle who was definitely happy on land and “tortoise like” but was a turtle nonetheless.

I met my first Sonoran Desert Tortoise at the Desert Museum here in Arizona five years ago. They are rarely seen in the wild, spending up to 95% of their lives underground, and unfortunately, though they have been listed as a “threatened species” since 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now considering adding them to the “endangered species” list.  It was during my visit to the museum that I first heard about their “Adopt a Tortoise” program.

Desert tortoises are all too often hit by cars on the road.  Those that venture out in the daytime are regularly removed from their natural habitat and taken home to people’s yards. Dogs are not tortoise-friendly and sometimes injure captive tortoises, and many times they just escape from yards that are not adequately fenced.  Those that survive are sometimes rescued and taken to the tortoise sanctuary at the Desert Museum where they can be adopted.

When my wife and I applied to adopt our tortoise we had no idea of the meticulous process that we were about to face. The museum screened us through an interview over the phone and sent a representative to our home for a face-to-face conversation and assessment of our back yard.  We discussed what we could and could not feed our new adoptee and received the requirements for building a proper den for the animal, along with required modifications to our yard and gates. We actually built three dens with the obligatory two feet of soil on top, just to spoil our new family member a bit. It was determined that we had lots of tasty native plants on our property that any tortoise could love, and we constructed the necessary 6 inch screen at the base of our gate to prevent the tortoise from seeing out.  It seems that once they catch sight of the world outside your fence, they become obsessed with heading back into the open desert and endlessly pace back and forth. So why not just free them to rejoin the great outdoors?

In a word, humans. Once a wild tortoise is picked up by a human being, well-intentioned or not, the animal is capable of transmitting any number of human diseases back into the wild population.  So what’s the point of remodeling your backyard for a slow-moving animal that shows up for just five months in a year and won’t fetch a ball?

They are a cause for “shellabration!” Besides helping a soon-to-be endangered species, you’ll be enjoying a fascinating, intelligent, entertaining and remarkable example of the wild natural world—right in your own backyard.

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