Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Wild Neighbors (Part 5), Tortugas


We are in the midst of the hottest part of the dry season in Yucatán, so regularly I switch on the pump and bring up well water to top off the pool and water the garden. When I do that, sometimes I begin to hear small rustlings under the plants. If I locate the sounds, I may see two heads the size of olives perched atop long necks, poking up out of the green like periscopes in camouflage.

I've written in this blog about many wild animals found in the vicinity of my house in Mérida centro. These tortugas, tortoises, are not "wild neighbors" in exactly the same sense as the many other creatures I've written about. That's because while the others freely come and go about their business, I brought these particular animals here, and due to the fact that the back garden is walled in, the tortoises can't move on if they get the notion. However they are not domesticated and (although I haven't verified this) I have been told they are native to the region.

These wild neighbors are timid. If I catch them in the open, crossing the concrete walk by the pool for instance, they stay completely still for a moment as if determining the danger of the situation and calculating carefully what to do. Although sometimes in this circumstance they freeze in position, more often they make for shelter in a comical herky-jerky run, or at least what amounts to running in the tortoise world.

Other times I stumble across them chewing slowly on herbs, drinking water that has puddled in a curled leaf, or ambling slowly and deliberately amongst the flowers. Caught in an area with cover, they may duck heads inside shells and keep still.

Although they are land animals, once in awhile I put them in the pool for a swim. Heads held high and with the tops of their shells barely breaking the surface, they can swim faster than they run on land. They can't get out of the pool on their own, so I keep an eye on them, and make these excursions brief.


A friend gave me these two tortoises three or four years ago. Someone had given him a pair way back, and they proliferated so successfully in his large back yard that he found it necessary to thin out the population. I've heard of other folks in Mérida who also keep a few of these animals.

Tortoises are absolutely the perfect pets for people who are busy. Although I occasionally throw them fruit and vegetable scraps or hand-feed them a banana, they seem to survive well on what they can forage in the garden. Once in awhile when tomatoes are ripe, I discover a low-hanging fruit has been hollowed out from below, and I suspect these characters are the culprits.

During the dry season the tortoises may not appear for a month or two, but they always show up again sooner or later. I don't believe that they actually hibernate, but have found them burrowed under leafy debris in cool corners and at the edges of large rocks. I assume that this their natural response to lack of moisture and a smaller food supply.

In the summer and fall, when it rains nearly every day, the tortoises are most active. I don't see them on a daily basis, but often find evidence of their activity in the form of chewed plants or trails of muddy footprints left across paved areas of the patio.

I have tried unsuccessfully to determine the species of these tortoises, and whether I have a breeding pair. I've had them close to four years now and have seen no evidence of breeding activity. I have observed that one has grown noticeably larger than the other, and that they are social, sticking together most of the time.

On a couple of occasions I also have noticed what looks like cooperative behavior on their part. When confronted with an obstacle too high to climb easily alone, one climbs onto the other and then pushes itself up on its hind legs atop the shell for a boost. It's probable that this happens just by chance because the two are usually together and not due to intentional cooperation, but it's interesting anyhow.

And they bite. Not aggressively, but if you pick one up or are feeding them by hand, you need to watch your fingers, because when they bite, they hang on. The first and only time I got caught this way, it took me a couple of minutes to get my finger back. The skin wasn't broken, but I was left with a light bruise that was tender for a couple of days.

For pets that always run away and don't express affection, these tortoises have done a pretty thorough job of capturing my heart. I expect to enjoy the company of these wild neighbors for a good long time.


Other posts about Wild Neighbors, animals who share the urban environment of Mérida with us:



36 comments:

  1. This is precisely what I needed this afternoon, Marc. Thank you.

    I love this. "...more often they make for shelter in a comical herky-jerky run, or at least what amounts to running in the tortoise world."

    I love turtles! When I was a child, spending summers at 99 Springs, we used to capture baby water turtles, take them to the swimming hole, and have turtle races.

    Driving over to OSU one day 15 years ago, I was horrified to see the crushed and splattered bodies of one box turtle after another on the road. On my way home, the trip took four hours, because I stopped for every still living, on-its-back tortuga on the road.

    Tortugas in the garden! I love it. And I love that they're your low maintenance pets. Great post.

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    1. Yes, they really just like to be left alone, and I wouldn't have to feed them at all if I didn't care to. I like to watch them eat, and it's a good way to recycle a few kitchen scraps.

      I never thought I'd enjoy them as much as I do.

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  2. They look adorable... I can see why they are growing on you!

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    1. Yes, they're pretty cute and the right kind of pet for me.

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  3. I am trying to acquire some turtles for my garden, during the rainy season I get overrun with slugs and my options are turtles or ducks, I'm going for turtles.

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    1. Yes, friends have told me they eat snails and such things, although I've never observed that. I do not, however, have a slug problem in my garden...

      If I hear of others up for adoption I will let you know.

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  4. I had no idea there were turtles in the area aside from the sea tortoises on the coast. They sound like perfect pets. Do they eat bugs and slugs?

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    1. I hear that they do eat such things as slugs, as Debi mentioned above.

      I also have observed some rather large fresh-water turtles in aguadas in Yucatán.

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  5. Marc,

    I checked for turtles at BackyardNature(dotnet) to see what Jim Conrad had detailed regarding turtles in Yucatan. It appears that your turtles are probably Red Cheeked Mud Turtles, based on one of his photos which he took in Quintana Roo. He says the lack of diversity of turtles in Yucatan is probably due to Maya turtle farming, which may have helped keep the gene pool stable.

    ~eric.

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    1. Thanks, Eric, I will check out Jim's photos and see for myself.

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    2. ... which makes it even better. I mean Red Cheeked Mud Turtles? Too cute. And swimming!! Turtle recreation. I'm so in love with this post!

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    3. It appears to me that you may have Furrowed Wood Turtles, (Rhinoclemmys Areolata)

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    4. Thanks, George, I will look that species up. I've tried to find a useful key for turtles and haven't found one that works for a layman like myself. It appears you know a lot more about these critters than I do. If you can suggest an online key or a thorough guide to turtles that covers Mexico, I'd enjoy hearing about it. I plan to photograph and want to try to ID the other turtles I have seen here.

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  6. Tis post made my day! And also, my two year old enjoyed the pictures immensely :) i do believe she is your youngest reader?

    Do theyhave names?
    (excuse the spelling errors, my iPad isnt letting me correct them)

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    1. I have not officially given them names, but have thought of them as Laurel and Hardy, the comedy film team, since one grew larger. I think El Gordo y El Flaco, the names used in Spanish for Laurel and Hardy, would be appropriate.

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  7. Here's the link to Jim Conrad's turtle page. (Scroll down to the second image.)

    http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mud-turt.htm

    ~eric.

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    1. Eric, you are right, the turtle in the second image is a dead ringer for those in my yard. The other images not so much.

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    2. Marc, This is the book that I have, A field guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of the Maya world by Julian C. Lee
      I spent the spring of 1968 south of Merida collecting reptiles and amphibians and caught several turtles like yours. The underside of females will be flat,the underside of males will be somewhat concave to aid them in the act of mating.

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    3. George, I have seen other turtles where this gender difference is notable, but I know that it's not the case in all species, so I was unsure. If that is the case, I have two females because their undersides are identical and flat. I am going to visit the friend who gave me this pair and look at the others he's got. Maybe I can exchange one of my girls for a boy...or get a third. It would be interesting, and I could supply turtles to friends who have expressed interest in them, if I had a breeding pair.

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  8. That is a charming entry, Marc! But I'd not be so sure that the tortugas were not cooperating, in the climb-on-me activity. Every day the scientific community is learning more about animal language, cooperation and such. It's turning out that we so called "humans" don't have a monopoly on such things.

    I sure hope you can someday capture an encounter between a tortuga and a zorro! Which one feigns what first?!

    Thanks for that Marc--that's a definite re-read for me.

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    1. I am glad you enjoyed the post, Alinde.

      You certainly may be right about the cooperation. I have seen them together near a concrete step in the garden, with one standing still at the bottom, while the second climbed on top and then struggled up on its back legs and pulled itself up! I don't know what the second turtle would do, stuck alone below. Just go about it's business, I guess, until it's partner came back. One got into the house this way. I am glad I found out because it might have gotten into one of the back rooms and been stuck in there for a long time.

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  9. "Climb on me" sounds so, er..., supportive, while maybe what was being said was "Not with you, Bubba."

    Ha! The subtleties of language.

    ~eric.

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    1. You've always got a new angle on things, Eric.

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  10. I've seen the doubles of your tortugas in the wild and not-so-wild back yards all of my life, but we've always called them terrapins in Oklahoma. My grandchildren get so excited when "Mr. Turtle" comes to see them (while lunching on the cat food on our patio.) I think your little guys (or gals) are lucky to live in your garden, and you obviously get joy from their presence and activity as well. Doesn't God bless us with his marvels ;>)

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  11. Oops! the terrapins, not my gkids, eat cat food!

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  12. Though I have nothing against turtles, in my experience people who keep them as pets are strange people. I could be mistaken.

    On another matter, I wonder why my comments here are always accompanied by this black exclamation point. Have you considered the Disqus comment system? It works well on Blogger, easy to install and has some nice bells and whistles.

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  13. Hi, Marc--today, in browsing through a book I was thinking of donating, I came across an Essay by E. Hoagland, "The Courage of Turtles." Then I even found a link to the whole thing! I'm sure you'll find it fascinating, but the ending is so sad. As Maya Angelou says, we must learn to forgive ourselves. Sure hope he was able to do that.

    http://www.cwu.edu/~garrisop/makeup_quiz_essays.pdf

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  14. And there I was thinking I had been the only 'gringo' in Mexico with a collection of turtles....I enjoyed the post!

    They're a different species to the common (as muck) brand I had - the Red Eared Slider. But a lot of the characteristics you describe are the same. I'd noticed they are really quite social. Mine would usually be found in specific pairings.

    As for lack of affection...well, none of them ever wagged a tail when I came home. But they would tolerate my being there without scuttling for cover in the water and hiding under the rock. Anyone other than me, however, and they'd be off like a shot. A couple of them would actively seek me out though and give me a vacant stare. One would even accept my proffered finger as a support to rest a paw on. That's about as affectionate as they ever got. But it was nice that such timid creatures felt comfortable with me.

    I hope there will be more turtle based posts to come...

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  15. I've come to a screeching halt many times over the years when I saw a turtle in Texas crossing the road. I've taken them home for my kids to raise......and then found some for my grandchildren. The first turtles must be about 20 years old now while the others are obviously younger. Both groups are fed lettuce, fruit and bugs found by family members.
    It's a fun way to connect with nature. The youngest set like to get under my daughter's deck but when they hear the kids, they come out!
    Enjoyed your post.

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  16. I love to watch turtles, they sometimes can act so human-like. They hide in their shell when surprised, maybe shy or feel endangered. Maybe the saying ..., out of its shell, comes from ... just guessing. No se.
    The Snapping ones I'm not fond of, hiking by the rivers in the NE you can come upon lots -- they're sure quick.

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  17. Just a bit more--Today's Diario de Yucatan, Imagen section, has a full page on a story about the liberation of tortugas in Celustún. Sorry, haven't yet found an on-line link to the article. Maybe tomorrow? It's a "keeper" for me to study further, (as is the story about Elvis Presley!)



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  18. Update: An expert last summer identified these as Rhinoclemmys Areolata, Furrowed Wood Turtle, or Tortuga Rugosa de Bosque.

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  19. This is a very late comment..I just read the post as I linked from another post. Fifteen or so years ago my sister adopted two tiny Sulkota tortoises that now weigh 150 pounds each. They need lots of food, dig enormous tunnels, require heated winter quarters, destroy fences and are quite noisy. Not all tortoise adoptions turn out as nicely as yours! Kathe

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    1. Kathe, it's never too late to comment. That's quite a story. Fortunately, the species I have doesn't grow terribly large. I'm not sure what I'd do with them if they did...my back yard space is fairly limited.

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  20. I was just given the name of a vet that is especially familiar with birds AND tortugas! Contact me if you'd like the Vet info.

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