The Season of the Duelling Tortoise

Some weeks a species will be more visible than usual and activity is trending in the reptile sector:  tortoise jousting!  We are fortunate to have eight out of the thirteen tortoise species endemic to South Africa, in the Western Cape.  The coastal variety, the angulate (Chersina angulata) is the most active, and the males have the dubious reputation for being the most truculent.  They engage in lengthy bouts of combat and use the enlarged shields beneath their necks to flip their opponents onto their backs.  Meanwhile the wiley females lurk as spectators in close distance to claim he who triumphs.  The confrontations can be quite brutal, rather like a game of dodgem cars, a fierce clashing of carapace, bashing and flipping motions.

Asserting territorial rights, the strongest get the females.
Asserting territorial rights, the strongest get the females.

Note the protruding neck plate – used in the ‘flipping’ tactic to get the loser onto his back.  If the loser is unable to right itself, and turn back upright, it’s a long, slow death.

Here, another species – leopard or mountain (Geochelone pardalis) tortoise set to in a challenge match –

Throwing down the gauntlet.
Throwing down the gauntlet.
The chase is on.
The chase is on.

Somehow there is a kind of reverence to this bullishness.  Tortoises are of that ancient group, the Chelonians, (Order Chelonii) and have remained almost unchanged since evolving in the early Triassic period, 210 million years ago. Their defensive structures, the shell and their amazing tread-like skin make for strong, impenetrable armour.

Take a look at a close up of “Hefty George” –

Meet Hefty George, he's an old loner.
George, the loner.
No teeth in this species, they have horny beaks, similar to that of parrots.
No teeth in this species, they have horny beaks, similar to that of parrots.

One of the popular bushtales from the Addo Elephant Park is that of a legendary mountain tortoise of enormous strength,  dubbed “Domkrag” (carjack).  He endorsed his reputation of Herculean strength by trying to flip stationary cars defending territorial rights on his stretch of the road.  He was of a ripe old age, but apparently met an ignominious death by falling down an aardvark’s burrow.

15 thoughts on “The Season of the Duelling Tortoise

  1. I really loved this – tortoises are my heroes (my running motto being slow and steady). 🙂 I had no idea there were so many different species of tortoise.

      1. Hi Hedwigia, on the contrary… thanks for the reblog! Appreciate your comments and rather relate to those attributes, slow and steady. Sounds like you have made good progress with your running challenge. As with the tortoise, hopefully a good recovery after spell on the back….

  2. very impressive! I didn’t know there were so many species. When I was young I had a tortoise ( which species??) She hibernated each winters. She lived 10years. I think now that it wasn’t a good idea to have it. Now I wonldn’t do this!

    1. Yes, it’s surprising to learn that there are about 43 different species worldwide. Intriguing that your pet tortoise lived that long, and would be interesting to know which species. They’re fascinating in their behaviour, and adapt to climates… clever adaptation hibernating through the cold of winter.

  3. Wow! Didn’t know anything about tortoise jousting. This is really, really interesting. Guys who get flipped onto their backs shouldn’t have a hard time getting back on their feet as they have almost perfectly spherical shells? As always Liz, thanks for sharing this fascinating piece of information.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.