5 days ago

Giant Galápagos tortoise provides up-close footage of its underbelly

Galápagos tortoises are among the most iconic animals in the world. Their enormous domed shells and long neck are instantly recognizable. These ancient animals are beloved and they have become a symbol of the islands here in one of the most remote and fascinating areas of the planet.

A wildlife videographer was hoping to capture interesting footage of these giant beasts eating and moving in the grass in a protected area on Santa Cruz Island. He left a camera quietly running in an area that was frequented by the tortoises. Moving away and leaving the camera in the grass was meant to allow the tortoises to go on about their business without feeling disturbed by the presence of a human watching them. But the tortoises were more comfortable with the tiny cameras than expected and they actually walked right over it as if it weren't even there.

The first section of footage shows a large male making his way toward the camera. After a brief rest and a snack, he continued walking, seemingly unaware that there was anything different about the small object in front of him. He straddled it and filmed the underside of his shell as he made his way along. Few people have seen the underside of these giants. Their carapace is only a few inches from the ground and an adult tortoise will almost never find itself flipped over. The camera reveals that the shell is quite concave, a necessary feature that allows the males to mount the domed shell of a female tortoise during breeding.

The massive legs of the tortoise can bee seen as they pass the camera. In a second section of footage, a tortoise slowly ambles past the camera and inadvertently kicks it, rotating precisely to provide a view of its back side as it walks past. A third tortoise is making its way at and past and it knocks the camera over, ending the footage completely.

Tortoises like these mature males are ancient, but it is difficult to precisely know their age. Believed to live possibly as long as 200 years, there are few records of these animals that show when they were born. Studies over the last century show that many here are known to be more than 100 years old. Some of them are believed to exceed 130 years of age. Researchers have marked them and careful records are now being kept. Future generations will have better answers as we learn more about them.

The origin of the tortoises on these islands is a mysterious and interesting debate. Naturalists believe that they arrived here from Africa, making their way on floating rafts of vegetation that arrived on the ocean currents. Tortoises can survive without food or fresh water for up to a year. Although many animals would perish on such a journey, giant tortoises are uniquely adapted for such a trip. Tortoises can store a great deal of water internally and they have thick leathery skin that prevents evaporation and water loss. Their scales resemble the skin of dinosaurs and they do more than just prevent water loss. These armoured surfaces provide protection if the tortoise needs to retreat into its shell to avoid a predator. The tortoise can simply outwait any animal that was trying to attack the vulnerable areas of the tortoise's body. There are few natural predators that threaten tortoises once they reach a decent size. But the introduction of rats and dogs here has reduced their numbers significantly in recent decades. Humans also consumed these tortoises as they provided meat for sailors on long journeys in past centuries. Now, through conservation laws and great effort, the populations are making a comeback.

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