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On the Flip-Side – Study of Tortoises Stuck on their Backs

On the Flip-Side – Study of Tortoises Stuck on their Backs


A question that many people deem only a philosophical and hypothetical quandary… When a tortoise has flipped onto its back, how does it get back up again?

But being stuck upside down can be a very real problem for tortoises, but surprisingly, one that hasn’t been investigated in much detail. Until recently, that is, when a team from the University of Belgrade in Serbia has published their report on if and how tortoises have evolved to react to this potentially life-threatening accident.

The study, led by Dr Ana Golubović and published in the Journal of Comparative Zoology, concerned a mid-sized species known as Hermann’s tortoises. The 64 males and 54 females – 118 tortoises altogether – were tested on location, meaning that the team had to travel across Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia to carry out their studies.

Focusing their efforts on tortoises considered “highly active”, the team turned the tortoises onto their backs and then measures how long it would take for the animals to right themselves. And because the variation in the size and shape of the tortoises’ shells, the researchers decided that shell geometry should also be taken into account when analysing the results.

Female tortoises are usually bigger than males, and it is thought that the bigger the tortoise, the better off it would be. But scientists now think that this might not be these case – the bigger the tortoise, the more likely it will become stranded if it flips over.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was found that tortoises with flatter shells were more likely to get stuck on their backs than those with curvaceous shells. But the more significant relationship was found to be between the size of the shell and the tortoise’s righting performance. And to make matters all the more interesting, despite females being larger than males, the phenomenon was found to be more pronounced in males than in females.

A bigger shell would make a tortoise better able to fight off rivals, and keep predators and food and water problems at bay. So, even though some male tortoises might be quite small, they are compensated in the smaller animal’s ability to right themselves after flipping onto their backs.

To round off this wonderful insight into tortoises, we have a short story from a couple of months ago in Taiwan. Now, tortoises are generally quite solitary animals in the wild and don’t often help each other out if one becomes stuck in a compromising position. But a YouTube video went viral after one tourist at Taipei Zoo recorded one tortoise helping its friend get back on its feet after becoming stuck on its back…



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