19 August 2011 by Julienne du Toit

Tortoise Time

Did you know that tortoises and their kin came within a whisker of being the dominant species on Earth? For a dizzying few millennia, they were the most advanced species on the planet. Deadly dangerous too, by all accounts.

Of course, that was back in the Permian-Triassic times, around 250-odd million years ago.

A quirk of evolution means that we ended up being the scary dominant species. By a series of extremely unlikely events too, if you read Bill Bryson’s great book “A Short History of Nearly Everything”.

Spring, when South Africa’s many tortoise species are marching across the land looking for mates, is a good time to ponder on what might have been.

Obviously, nothing would have been done in a rush. You’d have my vote there. Also, not much meat-eating, unless a carnivorous tortoise had evolved. Hard to imagine, really.

And all winter long, there would be some pretty serious napping, if not hibernating. Well, wouldn’t that be great. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time shivering through the last five months. Hibernation rocks.

Also, tortoises live for a long time. Some of them live for centuries,  which just goes to show what a vegetarian diet, a slow approach to life and a lot of sleep can do for you.

South Africa, for reasons no one can really explain, has more tortoise species than any other country - 12 of them, at least half confined to highly specialised fynbos habitats, and alas, in high demand with collectors.

If you find a tortoise, just leave it well alone unless it is in danger. And if you do move it to a safety, make sure you do so quickly. It may urinate in self-defence and dehydrate as a result.

Category: Wildlife

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