Category Archives: Turtles & Tortoises

Five Feet High and Rising

The creek behind my uncle’s house here in Western Ohio is flooding; normally a laconic and nameless little tributary with quietly dipping mallards, last night’s thunderstorm and rapidly melting snow has raised the water level almost twelve feet and transformed it into a swollen, churning torrent. As I sit here watching the lawn furniture and Fisher Price playsets rush downstream, I thought it’d be appropriate to talk about animals for whom floods are home.

I’ve written before about the flooded forests of the Amazon basin, the Amazon river dolphin in particular, but it’s worth another visit. The Amazon is sometimes referred to as the River Sea, and the reason why becomes clear when the water level rises 30 feet and covers three times its already substantial area. During the Spring floods, a gondola navigating the trees in the rainforest might come upon a pair of giant otters chasing each other through the water, or glide into a mysterious pool of shimmering gold which, on closer inspection, turns out to be a school of piranhas. Here in the varzea, the underwater forest, the Amazonian manatee does the dead man’s float while grazing on submerged meadows, and the anaconda rolls like water boiling. And if you’re lucky, you may find the dragon of the Amazon: the arapaima.

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The Lucky Ones

The Place: Le Grand Casino of Monte Carlo in the fabulously wealthy Principality of Monaco. The Date: August 18th, 1913. On the blood red carpet, tuxedoed dukes and oligarchs from every civilized country mingle at poker tables as green and manicured as estate lawns. They wear white ties and colognes, pince-nezzes and bryl-creme. The casino babbles in French and English, German, Italian, and Arabic, accented by the clinking of glasses and the soft tumble of dice. If you were to listen past the gilded white noise of the room, you could hear the snicker of a roulette wheel, and a growing commotion rising from it. Each time the whir of the spinning ball dies into a rattle, voices crash against the walls, each time a little louder, then ebb back as the whir starts again. This table is having a “streak;” the ball has landed on black ten times in a row. As the disbelief and the voices of gamblers gets louder, the table draws a larger crowd. Each time the ball lands on black, a single word is cried out in every language: “Красный! Červená! Rosso! Rouge! Rood! Red! Red! Red!” By the time the ball has landed 15 times on black, people are climbing over each other to thrust their money on the red squares, doubling and tripling their stakes. No one can believe the ball could land on black now 20 times in a row. Even the croupier is sweating, looking apologetically at the gentlemen as he takes their chips. By the time the streak is over, the ball has landed on black 26 consecutive times, and the casino has made millions.

The Place: The beach at Rancho Nuevo, Mexico, in the northern state of Tamaulipas. The Date: August 18th, 1913. The morning sun glints off the Gulf of Mexico like a knife. A slight breeze makes the palms crash their heads together in the yellow air. The ocean murmurs to the trees, the trees hush the ocean, and the sucking silence between them is cut only by the whinny of a distant horse. If you were to listen past the gilded white noise of the beach, you would hear a different sound, like a brushstroke on canvas. It is a newly-hatched Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle digging her way out of the soft white sand. Her flippers trace a fish-scale pattern on the beach as she dashes for the ocean… and is snatched up by a seagull. Soon more turtles are emerging, climbing over each other to reach the relative safety of the waves. But the crabs and gulls and even a few hawks and foxes have arisen early to glut themselves on the hatchlings. It’s a riot of beaks and teeth and shells as 4.5 million baby turtles erupt from the sand, and the word for blood is called out in every language. Still, the predators cannot possibly catch every turtle, and most escape into the foam. For the next year, they’ll be hunted by every oceanic predator large enough to swallow them. Only 4,500 will survive to breed, the females returning to this very beach to lay their own eggs. Their chances are one in a thousand. They are the lucky ones.

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The Phoenices

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about cataclysms. Conventional wisdom among ecologists is that disaster is good for the system: on a small scale, it’s cleansing and replenishing, and on a large scale, it allows the kind of regime change that allows evolution to progress. I don’t disagree about the smaller-scale disasters like forest fires & earthquakes, but lately I’ve been wondering, What’s so great about cataclysms, anyway?

After all, look at the ecosystems with the most stability: rainforests, coral reefs. Heck, if it helps, think of Pandora. Places free from major upheaval tend the create the most wondrous things, the most intimate symbiotic bonds, the greatest diversity of organisms. Life wants to create the strongest possible web. In the jungle, life builds so many bonds on its web that (naturally-occurring) forest fires are quickly localized and quenched, earthquakes can’t shake down the trees that knit their roots together, and any attempt to pluck one species from the web is met with resistance from an army of organisms. The longer it goes without disaster, the more the web of life becomes like chainmail: nearly disaster-proof, an indestructible ecosystem. Life is constantly trying to achieve ecological perfection: infinite beings, infinite bonds, infinite niches.

Unfortunately, perfection is impossible. So nature has built in cataclysms to keep itself from achieving what is a physical impossibility. In the Permian Era, it used volcanoes. In the Cretaceous, it used an asteroid. And here in the Holocene, it’s using us. We are the agents the Earth is using to ensure it never fully becomes heaven. Life is writing the most elegant equation of all time on the blackboard of the world, but the equation cannot be completed. So nature has invented Harpo Marxian clowns that periodically come in like whirlwinds, erase parts of the equation with their shirtsleeves and run back out the door.

But then, there are phoenices, creatures that depend on disaster, who live in fire, who eat destruction. I believe that Life, although it appears to act like an energy or a substance, is actually a dimension — a non-physical dimension. That makes death a dimension, too. And beings exist in both, the way there are animals built for night and day. And if stability breeds diversity, and a place has regular disasters, you get animals that live within that regular, stable cycle of destruction while still evolving in remarkably complex ways.

The definition of a regular disaster is wildfire, which is generally seasonal. Beings that can survive fire eventually evolve to become fire-dependent. The sequoia, for example, not only can withstand forest fires, but actually requires them in order for their seeds to germinate — one of the longest-living organisms in the world is a slow-moving phoenix. Another slow-moving phoenix is a tortoise.

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Only the Lonely

Meet Lonesome George, a subspecies of Galapagos Tortoise.

Galapagos Tortoises are great examples of insular gigantism, the phenomenon by which reptiles, insects, and birds on islands have a tendency to become enormous. (The reverse is true for terrestrial mammals; remind me to tell y’all about the kitten-sized foxes I met while visiting San Nicolas Island off the coast of LA.) Without competition from mammals, the tortoises had as much grass as they could eat, and grew into giants. Like the famous finches and everything else on the Galapagos, the tortoises have branched out into several species over the many islands. George is a Pinta Island Tortoise.

Of course, everything changed when humans found the islands. Goats introduced from the mainland consumed the tortoises’ food supply, and invasive pests attacked them directly. Now Lonesome George is the rarest animal on Earth. He is the only one of his kind.
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