Explore the History of Tortoises

Explore the History of Tortoises

Amir Soleymani

We see giant tortoises at the zoo and we know that many people keep tortoises as pets, even the larger breeds. When we hear about the history of tortoises, we seem to understand that these are extremely ancient animals that have been around long before the humans that keep them captive and will probably be here long after we are gone. This detail alone makes the tortoise such a fascinating animal to study and observe.

Today, we know that they feel at home both on land and on water, for the most part. We know what they look like: stubby legs, slow-moving, hard shell, etc. But what have tortoises really been through in their millions of years in existence? That’s what we’re here to find out.

Let’s start at the beginning. During the times of evolution, tortoises were among the species that partially made their way out of the water and went back and forth between land and sea throughout their evolution. Exclusively marine tortoises went extinct about 200 million years ago but the traces of turtles as we know them to remain. During the Triassic Period, we see the body of the tortoise take its familiar form. From here on out, the body remains largely unchanged.

Although the evolution of the turtle can be an easy one to follow, unlike the snake, for example, there are still missing links and the expected gigantism of most prehistoric animals during the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras. Can you imagine a giant tortoise roaming around, eating equally giant plants? Paleontologists can’t seem to pinpoint the exact prehistoric family that modern turtles evolved from, but they can say with confidence that it was not the placodonts, as was previously considered.

Historically, tortoises have had an influence on certain religions. In Hinduism, Vishnu is half-man, and half-tortoise and sat at the bottom of the ocean floor after a great mythical flood. In Ancient Greece, the tortoise is a symbol of the Greek God, Hermes. In Ancient China, turtle shells were used to make their predictions.

Today, you can find tortoises living in different parts of the world, growing to different sizes and showing different colours and patterns. The Galapagos Islands are home to giant tortoises and are said to have arrived there about 3 million years ago. One of the most impressive things about these turtles is their ability to survive without food or water for up to a year. Unfortunately, this couldn’t save the majority of the population from near extinction.

Whalers and buccaneers stored them as food on long voyages, and they were used for their oil to light lamps. Today, only about 25,000 wild tortoises live on the islands. Luckily, there are conservation efforts to preserve these herbivores from human intervention and other factors that have added to their decline.


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