Our house has lovingly been nicknamed “the zoo”, because along with our more traditional pet dogs, we also have four tortoises: two sulcatas and two Hermann’s. Everyone knows my husband as the “crazy animal lover guy”, so it’s not uncommon for us to get a phone call about a stray/homeless pet or a wildlife rescue question. Our number of pets may wax or wane at any moment.
Well, because of this reputation, our tortoise family just grew by one more sulcata! Ruby (our human toddler) has grown up with our existing tortoises, who my students named before she was even born. We were excited to let her name this one, while we continued the search for her owners. Ruby has settled on “Happy Thank You”, or just “Happy” for short.
Today, I wasn’t sure what our experiment would be and was pondering as I arrived home… to find an alligator in our yard! That’s right. A real, live alligator, just passing through. So, with that, I decided to forgo the traditional “experiment” and instead, share a little bit about our tortoises, reptiles and amphibians, and the field of herpetology.
Our Tortoise Family
Our sulcata tortoises are named Argus, Dumbledore, and Happy. Argus and Dumbledore are both 4-year-old males and Happy is a female (who we estimate is 5 or 6 years old). Sulcata tortoises are the third largest tortoises in the world. The biggest is the Galapagos tortoise, followed by the aldabra tortoise. Sulcata tortoises are also known as the African spurred tortoise because of the spurs on their thighs.
Sulcata tortoises are naturally found in North Africa, along the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, down through the more arid countries (like Mali and Ethiopia) and along the coast of the Red Sea.
Although these little hatchlings start out less than 2 inches small, they quickly grow and can end up weighing more than 100 pounds and even live to be older than 100 years. They like warm and dry climates, like their natural habitat, so they’re best kept in Southern areas where temperatures are mild in the winter. Obviously, with a tortoise this size, they must be housed outside, so they can enjoy roaming and grazing on fresh grasses. Because of their size, life span, and habitat requirements, sulcata tortoises are a major commitment for their owners. After all, many sulcatas will outlive them. We actually have included accommodations for our tortoises in our wills!
Our Hermann’s tortoises are named Turbo and George. They are both seven-year-old males. They originally lived in my classroom, before I became a full-time mom.
Hermann’s tortoises are named after French physician and naturalist, Johann Hermann. This species originated from the Mediterranean region in southern Europe, which is a fairly moderate habitat in terms of temperatures and moisture.
These tortoises stay fairly small, only growing to 5-10 inches, so they’re better suited for families with smaller yards and less space to be shared. They still enjoy being outside, roaming, and eating fresh grasses, so they’re not the best suited pets to be kept indoors all the time. In fact, they’re quite feisty, with lots of personality and are excellent climbers. They still require a lot more space than you’d think a little 10 inch tortoise would need! And even though they’re smaller, they can still live to be about 75 years old, so they’re a lifelong commitment for their owners!
Tortoises vs. Turtles vs. Terrapins: It’s all chelonian to me!
All tortoises, turtles, and terrapins can be grouped together not only as reptiles, but also as “chelonians”, because they’re all part of the taxonomic order Chelonia, which actually stems from the Greek word for tortoise.
So, if they’re all chelonians, why do we call them different names? Good question. The differences mostly pertain to their habitats. A habitat is where a certain plant or animal naturally lives.
A tortoise lives on land and eats lots of different plants (weeds, grasses, shrubs, even cactus). Their feet are designed for life on land, so they’re short and stumpy. Some people say that tortoise feet remind them of elephant feet! Many tortoises will dig burrows to escape their hot, arid natural climates. The burrows fill up with water when it rains, creating a cool and damp place for them to escape the heat and sun!
A turtle lives mostly in the water, although it can sometimes leave the water to bask in the sun. Turtle feet are different than tortoise feet – they’re usually webbed and better designed for swimming in water than for walking on land. Some turtles live in the ocean (like sea turtles), while others will live in fresh water. When it gets cold outside, some turtles will burrow into the mud until spring brings warmer weather (and water) back.
A terrapin lives both on land and in water and usually lives along the banks or shores of a body of water. They’re often found in swampy areas like the one my family lives in, here in Southeastern Louisiana. The term “terrapin” is for some reason not a very popular one, so most people stick to “tortoise” or “turtle” when classifying these types of reptiles.
You may notice that all of these cold-blooded animals (also called ectothermic animals) have a mention about what they do to cool down or warm up. That’s because cold-blooded animals react to the temperature of their surroundings and can’t regulate their own body temperatures. So, if they need to warm up or cool down, they must change their surroundings and go somewhere else!
Herpetology is a branch of biology/zoology that studies reptiles and amphibians. The word stems from the Greek word “herpeton” which means “creeping creature” and “herpien” which means “to creep”. Pretty appropriate, right?
Reptiles are cold-blooded vertebrates like snakes, lizards, crocodiles, and turtles. They usually have dry, scaly skin and breathe air. They also lay their soft-shelled eggs on land, instead of in the water.
Amphibians are also cold-blooded vertebrates, but they have gills to breathe and live in water as larvae, before developing lungs to breathe air as they grow older. They have moist, slimy skin without scales, like frogs, toads, and salamanders. Another fun amphibian fact? Their skin also helps them breathe through a gas exchange. They actually can absorb oxygen and release carbon dioxide gas right through their skin!
Like many scientific fields, herpetology can be a tricky one to enter professionally. So, if you really love reptiles and amphibians, expect a harder road to finding a job working with and studying them. If you succeed, you’ll be called a herpetologist, a person who studies, you guessed it, reptiles and amphibians. You’ll likely work in a research lab, zoo, or university. There aren’t really college programs designed to study herpetology exclusively, so you’ll likely find a related major and build expertise through specialized projects and independent studies with qualified faculty.
If you choose not to study reptiles and amphibians, you still might end up a herper (a person who catches reptiles and amphibians in the wild as a hobby) or a herpetoculturist (a person who breeds and/or keeps reptiles and amphibians as a hobby or to sell them).
Are you a reptile and amphibian fan… a herper maybe? I’d love to hear from you!