Tortoises are land turtles that live in a variety of habitats, ranging from deserts to rain forests, in parts of Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Madagascar and islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Their diet mainly consists of grasses, fruits, flowers and other vegetation, although some species also eat carrion. The average lifespan varies by species, with gopher tortoises living over 40 years and giant tortoises living to be over 100 years old.
Scientific & Common Names
There are roughly 40 to 50 species of tortoises, which all belong to the Testudinidae family. Some tortoise species include the Galapagos giant tortoise, desert tortoise, yellow-footed tortoise and radiated tortoise.
Tortoises have thick, short legs and a heavy carapace, or shell. Their coloring ranges from dull grays and browns to brighter shades of yellow and green. Tortoises come in a wide range of sizes, depending on the species. Smaller tortoises, such as the parrot-beaked tortoise, have an average shell length of 4 inches and only weigh a few pounds. Larger species, such as the Aldabra giant tortoise, have a shell length of 47 inches and can weigh up to 550 pounds.
Tortoises have different specific courtship rituals, depending on the species. In most cases, males make head gestures to attract females. Females lay their eggs in nests dug into the ground. They usually only have 10 eggs or fewer at a time, but they can produce more eggs during each breeding season.
Tortoises usually spend part of the day searching for food and stay in their burrows at night. They also hibernate in these burrows during winter. While some species, such as the desert tortoise, spend almost all of their time in their burrows throughout the year, other tortoises, including the Galapagos giant tortoise, regularly roam farther from home in groups to swim and look for food.
Tortoises have been around for millions of years. In fact, the oldest tortoise fossils date back to the Eocene Period, which was 34 to 56 million years ago. Over the years, some species have experienced widespread habitation loss, leading to significant population declines.
A few tortoise species are listed as Critically Endangered, including the radiated tortoise and the ploughshare tortoise. Others are listed as Vulnerable or Endangered due to habitat destruction, poaching and collection for the pet trade. Conservation efforts to protect threatened tortoise species have met some success.