15 amazing facts about tortoises

Little known truths about one of the longest-living animals on the planet.


1. They like to sunbathe. Like all reptiles, tortoises are cold-blooded. They are also diurnal – which means that they’re predominantly active during the day – so draw from the environment to get warm, often sun-bathing to get the same result. Their flat, round feet are also good at drawing up heat from the ground.


2. Pregnant females will dig burrows and lay up to 30 eggs. They will then leave them to incubate and hatch entirely on their own.


3. The shell is 60 different bones. The most iconic feature of the tortoise is its shell, but in fact it isn’t a shell at all. A tortoise’s shell is made up of 60 different bones, all of which are connected to one another. The top of the shell is called a carapace, while the underside is called a plastron.


4. Tortoises were a meat source. During the 19th century, sailors on long voyages used to capture and eat the tortoises they found on the Galapagos Islands, because the reptile was the only source of fresh meat for them. Plus, given the tortoises ability to go a long time without food, they were easy to look after.


5. Although they have no teeth, tortoises have strong mouths and horned ridges to mash their food.


6. The Galapagos tortoise is the largest living of the species, with males weighing over 200kg (440lbs) on average.


7. A tortoise can live for up to 80 years. Tortoises can live for a very long time, with many recorded as lasting up to around 150 years old. Their average life span is between 90 and 250 years, though there are accounts of some living well beyond this and even reaching 180 years old.


8. The Galapagos Islands discovered by Spanish sailors in 1535, were named after the tortoises there.


9. Famed for their lack of speed, tortoises can cover large distances – up to 6.4km (four miles) every day.


10. Most species of tortoise hibernate during the winter and will starve themselves to empty their stomachs beforehand.


11. The females can store the male’s sperm. They are able to do this and produce fertile eggs for up to three or four years after mating. The females lay 2 to 12 eggs, but can produce up to 30 in deep holes dug in sand or loose soil. She will then abandon the eggs to fend for themselves. The hatchlings take several months to incubate, before finally emerging.


12. Temperature will determine is a tortoise will become male or female. As a reptile species, the surrounding temperature can affect whether fertilised tortoise eggs are born male or female. When the weather is hotter it’s been logged that more females are born, especially during the warm El Nino current, which affects the Galapagos.


13. Tortoise or turtle? The biggest difference between the two is that tortoise live entirely on land. The physical difference between the shell-dwelling duo is that tortoises have stumpy legs while turtle legs have developed into flippers, enabling them to swim.


14. As well as weighing a huge amount, an adult Galapagos tortoise can reach over 1.2 metres (four feet) in length.


15. They’ll ram shells to get attention. During the breeding season, males can become very territorial. They will rise up tall on their legs and extend their long necks to display dominance. While courting females, they have been known to nip their legs and also ram their shells in order to gain attention and show their prowess as a potential mating partner.


Read next:

How do tortoises use their shells?

Tortoises have been to space!

Tortoises have the longest lifespan of all land mammals


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