Posts Tagged ‘Spur Thighed Tortoise’

Stepping Through ZAM: Day 9, Savannah Module

by | May 11th, 2012

This is Franette Armstrong's last post in her diary of Zoo Ambassador training for the Savannah area of our Zoo.






Outrageous nests, forked tongues and pancakes were the topic tonight. Keeper Jason Loy and Zoological Manager, Michelle Jeffries, came to class to introduce us to the Reptiles and Birds of the Savannah.

Down in the Children’s Zoo we have dainty Black Tree Monitors but up here on the Savannah we have a 7-foot-long, 60-pound Black Throated Monitor. Monitors are the only species of Lizard that have forked tongues.

Forked tongues let the Black Throated Monitor capture scents and literally fork them into tiny holes leading to their nasal cavity. Photo Credit Steve Goodall

What is the purpose of a forked tongue? You might know, if you’ve been reading my ZAM blogs, that Snakes and Monitors have something called a Jacobsen’s Organ—a patch of sensory cells on the roof of their mouths. When they stick out their tongues, the forks catch moisture beads that have scent particles in them. Then the tongue brings them into the mouth where they are deposited into two little pits in this group of cells. From there they get processed as smells. Put in simple terms, Snakes and Monitors don’t breathe in odors—they taste them instead, and from two directions at once, a help in finding warm-blooded prey.

Our guy is related to Komodo Dragons and, like them, is nothing to be messed with out in the wild. He’ll give his opponents a tail whipping, a nasty bite, and carve them up with his claws for good measure. All these capabilities keep them from making ideal pets.

But that hasn’t saved them from the leather trade and sometimes they are killed just out of fear. All this plus habitat loss makes Monitors very threatened in the wild.

Flat and Happy

The opposite in size to our Black-Throated Monitor are our little Pancake Tortoises…the only turtles that can actually climb walls! These 7-inchers actually brace their shells against one side of a crevice and use their feet on the other side to propel themselves upward. And on flat ground they really move quickly, zipping under rocks and into crevices before a predator can say “what’s for dinner?”

Pancake Tortoises fill their lungs with air and their flat, slightly flexible shells expand to let them wedge tightly under rocks.

Because they are small and cute, Pancake Tortoises and their eggs are captured for the pet trade and they are also losing their turf to the lumber industry, so they too are a threatened species.


Flower Child

The opposite in size to our Pancake Tortoises is our African Spur Thigh Tortoise…the third largest Tortoise in the world, after the Galapagos and our Aldabras. These start out little (4-5” in diameter) so people buy them as pets not realizing that pretty soon they will weigh 100-200 pounds. As they can live 100 years or more, most owners get tired of them before the Tortoises get tired of living and then problem becomes, what do with old Torty? Sadly, the solution usually isn’t a happy one for Torty.

Tortoises love red and yellow fruits and flowers, so a favorite dessert is carrots and tomatoes. Ours is only 14 years old so she has a lot of eating ahead of her. Photo credit Steve Goodall



Because they are the most popular pet Tortoise in North America, Spur Thighs are nearly extinct in Africa. The best way to help them is never to purchase a wild-caught Tortoise, if you have to purchase one at all. You can always come visit ours!


Savannah Architects

We have two aviaries in the Savannah section of the Zoo and in them are some fascinating nest builders. I’ll just tell you about two and leave the rest for you to discover on your next trip.

Hammerkops are smallish brown crane-like birds who build such huge nests, and so many of them, that their nests become home not only to other birds, but to mammals, reptiles and insects— like snakes, owls, honey bees, mongooses and the cat-like Genets. Luckily for all these househunters, Hammerkops build nests constantly whether they need them or not.

Hammerkops got their name from the anvil shape of their heads

In the wild Hammerkop nests can be 6 feet wide by 6 feet tall and 45 feet up in trees.

Opposite in size are the fortress-like nests that Red-billed Hornbills construct. These hopping little ground birds create a nest and then the female goes inside and lets the male cement her in with clay he makes out of food, feathers  and dung, leaving only a tiny hole to feed her through.

The female sits in there, waiting to be fed, waiting for her eggs to hatch, and losing all her feathers (probably tearing them out from boredom!) until the babies are big enough to be left alone. Then she breaks out of the nest and she and her mate cement the babies in—again, leaving only a small hole to feed them through. Eventually the chicks get big enough to rebel and they start pecking their way out from the inside while the parents help them from the outside and the family is finally united.

In Africa, Hornbill feathers are highly prized for ceremonial headdresses and this is endangering the Hornbills. To help, a college professor has partnered with zoos to gather feathers that are dropped off these and other birds and give them to the Africans for their ceremonies. A small idea with a big impact!

You can see how Red-Billed Hornbills got their name. Photo credit Steve Goodall



And that is a central theme of so many conservation projects now going on to save African animals. One or a few people notice a problem (like snares capturing Chimps by accident) and come up with a solution (like training poachers to become snare removal troops and teaching them to raise goats so they don’t have to snare wild animals for food). From beehive fencing for protecting Elephants, to fuel-wood projects for protecting forest habitats, creative solutions that also help people are making a difference for animals.

Here at the Zoo we are supporting projects like this through our Quarters for Conservation program ((link)) and many fundraisers. If you’re looking for a chance to help all these animals, you can start right here.


Tonight was the last lecture in the Savannah module. On Saturday we give our final presentations and then we have a week to study for our final exam. After that, if we pass, we will be mentored by an experienced docent to make sure we are ready to roam the Savannah on our own.


Next stop? The Rainforest Module. Monkeys, Apes, Tropical Birds and….Tigers! As Tigers are my favorite animals, it is fitting that they should be saved for last.


See you in the Rainforest,