Mystery Tortoise

At today’s summer camp session, David Wheeler, one of our top-notch groundskeepers and knowledgeable about almost everything, walked up to the campers with a large tortoise in his hands. We are in the process of laying water lines in various places around the grounds, and David found it trapped in the ditch, unable to climb out.  “It’s a gopher tortoise,” David announced confidently.

We all examined it carefully, taking photos, and watched it move through the grass when we put it on the ground. You expect turtles and tortoises to be slow animals, but this one is a real speedster, especially since it just wanted to escape from us.

The front legs look like flippers at first, but closer examination shows sharp nails, and extra edges useful for digging, while the back legs resemble elephant legs and feet.

The bottom of the shell, called a “plastron” was smooth and flat, so this one is a female.  The male’s plastron is concave, so it can climb up on the female’s back for breeding without tipping off. Look at the distinct, almost rectangular markings.

She seems to have a hook on her mouth that looks like fangs, but I don’t think there is such a thing as a vampire tortoise!  All through the examination, she moved her legs, trying to get away from us. David washed the mud off with a hose, and released her in our fenced in yard behind Mahan Manor, and 15 minutes later, I was unable to find her.

The Internet is the first place to research a new animal before putting a post on the blog, right?  Gopher tortoises are native to Florida, and other states in the far south, and they are actually on the endangered species list!  Wait a minute.  What would one be doing in Oldham County, Kentucky???  If someone had it illegally and released it, we shouldn’t just let it crawl off on the preserve.  We don’t have the right habitat for it, and how could it possibly survive a Kentucky winter?  David found her again, and we put her in a box for a more thorough identification. 

In fact, one of our volunteers, David Singewald, is a marine biologist, so we put him on the job.  (And he thought we only wanted him to mow the grass!)  Photos of our mystery tortoise are on their way to herpetologists around the country. If, in fact, this is an endangered gopher tortoise, we need to get it to the proper authorities so it can be placed in the right habitat.  So stay tuned.  We’ll let you know as we learn anything more about her.

Naturally yours,