This summer day began like any other until an unusual tortoise was brought to the Wildlife Center. At least it wasn’t as big as the African Spurred Thigh Tortoise . In quick order the tortoise was identified as a Texas Tortoise and its status as a threatened species was confirmed. The twist was that a captive Texas Tortoise, by law CAN NOT BE RELEASED back into the wild!
The Wildlife Center is sometimes placed in an awkward position when people illegally possessing wildlife turn to us for help. Almost all native Texas wildlife is protected and its possession, transportation or removal from its native environment is illegal. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife take these protections very seriously. If the animal in question is threatened or endangered, there are additional hoops to jump through. When a threatened or endangered animal comes into our possession, it must be immediately reported to Texas Parks and Wildlife.
Do you know the difference between a turtle, tortoise and terrapin? Don’t feel bad; biologists wrestle with this question too. All three are reptiles called chelonians. The placement of a specific species into a category is based more on where the animal spends its time instead of strict taxonomic differences. Aquatic turtles like sea turtles spend almost no time on land and have an adaptation that has turned their legs into flippers. Turtles spend some portion of their lifecycle in the water or spend significant time in or near water. Their feet are usually webbed for more efficient swimming. The Red-eared Slider is a good example. Tortoises are usually associated with deserts or at least dry environments and have rear legs that remind one of an elephant’s. Terrapin usually refers to a chelonian that either begins life in the water and then moves to dry land or lives in marshy habitats. Box Turtles don’t cleanly fit into any of the three “classifications” since while they spend all of their lifecycle on land, but are not tortoises.
The Texas Tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri) was discovered and documented by the Belgian naturalist Jean Louis Berlandier, who worked for the Mexican government on one of the first biological surveys of Texas, therefore sometimes it is referred to as Berlandier’s Tortoise. It is the smallest of the four species of tortoises found in North America. All four are of the genus Gopherus and are commonly called Gopher Turtles. The nickname is based on the tortoise’s outstanding digging ability. The Texas Tortoise will utilize existing burrows, but it doesn’t usually dig its own. Instead, they hollow out a pallet to crash on under a bush or cacti. The Texas Tortoise’s natural territory is found in south Texas and northeastern Mexico where it thrives on vegetation, especially succulents. A favorite treat is the fruit of the prickly pear.
A docile animal, the beautiful Texas Tortoise was coveted by pet suppliers. Historically, less than half of the wild harvested tortoises lived long enough reach the market and once in the hands of inexperienced owners, few lived until maturity. The interrelation of habitat, need for direct sunlight and diet is much too complex for most hobbyists to provide. Therefore, few captive tortoises reached sexual maturity at 15 years of age or their full lifespan of 60 years or more. Before considering keeping a turtle or tortoise as a pet, join an organization like Gulf Coast Turtle and Tortoise Society ( http://www.gctts.org/) to learn about its needs.
The Texas Tortoise has been protected by law in Texas since 1967 and in 1977 was listed as Threatened, affording it protection from being taken, possessed, transported, exported, sold, or offered for sale. It is listed in the United States under the Endangered Species act which makes it illegal to collect Texas Tortoise from the wild. The tortoise’s listing on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) means that any international trade requires a permit. This protection isn’t perfect, or a half grown Texas Tortoise wouldn’t have been surrendered to the Wildlife Center, but it has stopped the wholesale harvesting. In order to save this interesting tortoise from extinction, we must first understand what pushed the species onto the threatened list.
Hindering reestablishment of the Texas Tortoise is its low reproductive rate. Even under the best conditions, the reproductive rate isn’t high enough to reestablish its original numbers. Therefore any individual that is removed from the wild results in a significant impact to the entire population.
The Texas Tortoise is also susceptible to disease, in particular mycoplasmosis which is caused a bacterium that results in chronic respiratory and urinary tract infections. Infection with mycoplasma can remain dormant until the individual animal is stressed, exist in a low grade form (walking pneumonia) that degrades health enough to lower fertility or is fatal. The disease is highly contagious and simple inspection will not reveal whether the individual is infected. To prevent the transmission of this disease to wild populations, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department forbids reintroduction of captured animals to the wild. Therein lays the rock and the hard place. Not only could the tortoise surrendered to us not be released back into the wild, it also prohibits a captive breeding and release program. The release of a species once it is old enough to improve survival is an important conservation tool. A veterinarian with the proper permits to keep this type of tortoise was located and “our” tortoise was transferred to her.
The next hurtle the tortoise must overcome is the conversion of its habitat to other land uses such as farming, housing or commercial uses. Interestingly enough, conversion of land to ranching either doesn’t severely impact the tortoise population or in some cases even improves its survival. It is estimated that 90% of the tortoise’s habitat in the Texas Rio Grand Valley region has been converted to farming and 80% of the remaining land is unprotected and threatened by development.
The Texas Tortoise’s breeding season is the late spring to early fall. By October they can be found in abandoned mammal burrows where they will hibernate until March. In other words, once the tortoise has eaten enough to replenish its reserves after hibernating, it is breeding season. The female will lay one or two clutches of two to three eggs each. Tortoise love begins with the male finding a suitable mate and bobbing his head at her, the slow motion chase then begins. If the mating was successful, the clutch should hatch in slightly over three months. The newly hatched tortoises will be about one and one-half inches in diameter and should grow to the adult size of eight and one-half inches in length.
If you are fortunate enough to come across a Texas Tortoise in the wild, do not pick it up! Like many animals, the tortoise will release its bladder in attempt to escape. This loss of water reserves can easily doom the animal to a slow death from dehydration. The tortoise will allow you to approach closely without becoming distressed, so enjoy your find from a few feet away and don’t touch it.
So how do you tell if you are looking at a Texas Tortoise? The first clue is the oblong, rather flat-topped carapace (upper shell). The carapace is largely shades of brown. The scutes (plates of carapace) have a rough, ridged appearance. Some of the scutes have a yellowish-orange center. The plastron (lower shell) is yellow. Next, the hind legs are columnar and remind one of an elephant’s. The front legs have digging claws, but they aren’t as prominent as other gopher tortoise or many turtle species. The wedge-shaped head has a pointed snout with a slightly hooked upper jaw. There is an interesting projection of the plastron to protect the head. Male Texas Tortoises can be distinguished by their slightly longer and narrower carapaces and their concave plastron.
The Texas Tortoise is definitely between a rock and a hard place. In the wild the species is under extreme stress. What can you do? First, educate the people in your life about the natural and man-made stresses that this species must overcome. Let them know taking one of these animals out of the wild is illegal AND putting a captive animal back into the wild is also illegal. Make sure people that visit the habitats of this tortoise know not to touch these interesting reptiles. In addition to the problem of dehydration should the tortoise void its bladder, there is a small but real possibility of transferring an infection TO the animal. Be sure to take lots of photos, but leave the tortoise unmolested.