30. Here be giants.

I’m writing about tropical islands today. Because tropical islands are not cold. I am not writing about Johannesburg. Because Johannesburg is cold. But that’s not my only reason for writing about tropical islands. As I will never tire of reminding you, I went to the Seychelles recently. I was looking through the photos this morning, because I was cold, and came across this one.

Some of the interesting wildlife of the Seychelles. And a tortoise.

Some of the interesting wildlife of the Seychelles. And a tortoise.

It’s a giant tortoise. And it looks, at first glance, like a most unlikely creature. It really is enormous. But it’s a tortoise. And tortoises are not famous for being exciting. We took a boat trip out to an island reserve one day, where they had established a large breeding population of giant tortoises.

It was a great day out. An adventure. The boat cut through the open sea, bouncing over the swell and scattering flying fish in its path. We stopped a couple of times to jump off the boat and snorkel in the clear blue water, chasing flashing schools of brightly coloured fish through the nooks and crannies of crowded coral reefs, and hanging motionless as clouds over grazing sea turtles.

When we reached the island, we hopped onto a smaller boat and rode up through the gently rolling surf where we jumped off and waded through the water to the beach like the pirates who once hid out here. And there, at the edge of the sand, and receding into the shade of the palms that littered the shore, were the tortoises. Lots of them.

We try to keep our holidays interesting.

We try to keep our holidays interesting.

I’m going to share a dirty little secret with you. I love wildlife. I read about it whenever I get the chance. I spend as much time as I can seeking it out. But here’s the thing. It can be boring. It can be earth –shatteringly, teeth achingly, skin crawlingly dull. If you have spent some time in the wild, you know this. And you know the trick. You wait. You fill your head with something else and you sit. And sit. And sit. Often, you find a spot where there is no wildlife to be seen, but where it might be seen later. And you sit.

You sit because it might just pay off. And then it will all be worth it. Lions are the best example of this. Watching lions lie around in the heat of day is like watching paint dry. They just lie there. For hours. A tail might flick. An ear might twitch. If you’re really lucky, a great, battle-scarred head might be lifted for half a second for a quick glance around, before flopping back to the ground, motionless. They can do this for 18 hours a day. But it’s worth sticking around. Because for the rest of the day, they are wrestling buffalos and bringing down giraffes.

This is not a photograph. It's an animated gif.

This is not a photograph. It’s an animated gif.

Not so much with the tortoises. You can stare at a tortoise for weeks, and it will fail to wrestle with a single damn thing. They were interesting for what they were, not what they did. In their defence, they did rise up on their legs like old fashioned Citroens when you tickled their heads. But that was it. They do, occasionally have sex, but we had children with us, so I’m glad they didn’t that day.

Not that I believe that kids should be sheltered from that sort of thing. Biology is biology, and if I happen to see cows or sheep mating, I don’t clamp my hand over my kids’ eyes or rush over and break up the party. I just explain what’s going on. Not with tortoises though. Tortoise sex is obscene. It’s wrong. It is an affront against all that is good in the world. It will scar your soul and burn your eyeballs. It quite simply shouldn’t be allowed. Look;

And so we stood and looked at the tortoises. We tickled their heads. They rose up on their legs. We stopped. They sank down again. We looked at each other. We looked at the tortoises. We looked at the guide. “Right!” we said, after waiting a little while, more out of politeness than anything else, “We can go back now.”

But that’s another nice thing about wildlife. They don’t have to do anything interesting to be interesting. And it turns out that giant tortoises are pretty interesting.

I grew up thinking that they were examples of “island gigantism”. Island gigantism is where otherwise ordinary creatures wash up on isolated islands and slowly but surely, generation after generation, grow. Huge. Dodos did this. They were huge pigeons. The biggest birds in the world used to live in New Zealand. Komodo dragons live on islands. What happens is that the creatures find themselves in a place with abundant resources and no enemies. They are free to evolve in any direction they please. Pigeons could turn into Dodos because they didn’t need to fly any more.

Not all animatronics in New Zealand are "Lord of The Rings" quality.

Not all animatronics in New Zealand are “Lord of The Rings” quality.

Oddly enough, the opposite thing happens too, for the same reasons. It’s called island dwarfism. Large animals reach an isolated island and become smaller. Fossils of dwarf elephants have been found on many islands, including Malta. Here, the animals have no need of being big anymore. More than anything else, an elephant’s size is there for self-defence. And it’s expensive. It takes huge amounts of energy to grow that size, and huge amounts of energy to stay that size. And if you don’t need to be too big for anything else to tackle, there’s no point in being big. Especially on an island where resources are limited.

It turned out, though, that I was wrong. Giant tortoises are not examples of island gigantism. They are examples of how we are too smart for our own good. You see, giant tortoises actually used to be fairly common. You found them in the Americas. You found them in Australia. Asia. Africa. They were everywhere. They were obviously just a successful design.

But they are mostly gone now. And there seems to be a single reason for this. Us. There isn’t much direct evidence that we wiped them out, but they seemed to disappear from areas at about the same time we moved into them. And that makes sense. Being a giant tortoise was a pretty good defence against lions and tigers, snakes and birds. But not us. We could think our way past that shell. And that’s not all.

There are very few giant tortoises left in the world. You get them in the Seychelles and the Galapagos. And we very nearly lost those too. They have, you see, a rather profound design flaw. They aren’t just edible. They are the world’s first canned food.

And this was one of our earliest inventions.

And this was one of our earliest inventions.

They are reptiles. Reptiles have slow metabolisms. If you have a pet snake, you don’t feed it every day. Or every week. Big reptiles don’t even have to be fed every month. And once the sailors of old discovered this, it was nearly the end for the tortoises. Ships would land on an island and collect hundreds of tortoises. And just throw them into the hold. That’s it. No food, no water, no bedding. They would just lie there. For months. Alive. And fresh.

This must have happened on the continents too. You couldn’t carry live zebras or hippos back to your hut. You killed what you could and ate it before it rotted. And then you had to go and find more food. But if you got yourself a giant tortoise or two, you had insurance. You had a fridge. Tinned food. Drag them home and put them in a pen of low rocks, and you have set something aside for a rainy day. Fail to find food for a day, and you go hungry. Fail to find food for a week, and you eat one of your tortoises.

They could have been the first farm animals. But for one thing. It takes a lifetime to grow a giant tortoise. It’s not worth breeding them. You would just wait until times were tough, eat what you had, and then go and find more. Until they were all gone.

But that’s just my theory. Maybe the truth is more complicated. Just because our ancestors couldn’t read and write, does not make them simple. They would have been as complex as we were. And as sensitive as we are. So maybe they wiped those tortoises out just to stop them from having sex. Because damn! Nobody should have to see that.

20 thoughts on “30. Here be giants.

  1. turtle clip CLASSIC

  2. erickuns says:

    Kinda’ sounds like tortoises weren’t only the first “canned food” but also the first hydraulic pumps.

    The part about them surviving for long periods without nourishment, and thus being ideal for the early, long hauls overseas, makes a lot of sense. However, I remember reading something, or watching it, about the introduction of domestic animals such as pigs being highly destructive to native tortoise populations. The pigs eat the eggs, and goats and other animals compete for the same food as the tortoises.

    Maybe they can be saved in the pet trade. You give one to your kid and they have the damned thing for the rest of their lives. People could grow attached. Just convince them it’s their “lucky tortoise”.

  3. Lyn says:

    I’ve just woken the dog up with my laughing and she’s not happy. She never gets up before 8:30. But Mr 23Thorns, you lied to me. You said it was an animated gif and not a photograph. I sat and watched it for 20 minutes and the lions didn’t so much as twitch an eyebrow 😦
    As for the tortoises…well, I think Mpho said it best.

  4. Hilarious as always! good show 🙂

  5. mariekeates says:

    Apparently those tortoises tasted so good no one could resist them once they’d tried one. They kept trying to bring them back on ships but ended up eating them before they got them home. Wonder if they taste like chocolate?

  6. narf77 says:

    Isn’t natural selection the bomb? Maybe in a million years there will be narf77 descendants who are able to intuit where they are in the dark simply by a form of sensory sonar where breath and touch don’t need to fumble around in the dark at 3am in a vain attempt to not wake the rest of the house. The dog is already there…he can hear my eyelids open and is trotting to the bedroom to take up residence in my still warm side of the bed while I am fumbling for clothes and falling over various dog toys left to give me a challenge in my early mornings. The dogs love to challenge me. My dogs are as big as those enormous land tortoises but are considerably more agile (comes from having no natural enemies in Tasmania) and love to wait till you have your back turned to them and then both explode into action and take you out at the knees. I feel this is related to their past need to hunt prey and am watching them VERY closely in case, like tortoises, they go for the throat. You haven’t seen a tortoise go for the throat? Obviously, they were as uninterested in battle as they were sex on the day that you went to the island. Methinks you were gipped Mr 23Thorns, you should demand your money back. A prime chance to educate your children in both sex AND battle and you missed out! Oh well…maybe next time…

    • 23thorns says:

      We used to have a boerboel (huge local dog) that used to take out my wife’s knees from the front. All in good fun, of course, but knees aren’t supposed to bend that way. One of the tortoises did charge down the hill at us with murderous intent, but we got tired of waiting and wandered back off to the boat before he got there.

      • narf77 says:

        I guess you will just have to take your children in single file down to the Lowveldt and after careful consideration, you will have to reveal “that fungus” to them and give them the birds, bees and fungus talk. I remember giving my (now 31) son “that talk”. He asked where babies came from when he was 6 and I, having been told absolutely NOTHING about anything when I was a child thought that I would be a responsible parent and set about explaining everything in great (and most calm) detail. He listened very carefully…he never interjected once…he sat still and after I finished my monologue he said “That is disgusting and I am NEVER going to do that”. Maybe I missed something in the delivery…I have never been very good at public speaking…hopefully you will have better luck with your kids.

      • narf77 says:

        Just looked up “boerboel” and boerboel = bloody big mastiff if I am not mistaken. Our 2 American staffies look like tiddlers besides one of them. I concede Mrs 23thorns, your forward bending knees win the battle of the dogs. My backward bending knees salute you…but the bit where my derrière hit the floor after rising up into our lounge room equivalent of the stratosphere and then realising that it was indeed subject to the same gravity as the rest of me and returned from orbit with incredible velocity is still smarting 😦

  7. billgncs says:

    new meaning to coming out of your shell 🙂

  8. Mpho says:

    I wish I hadn’t clicked play…I wish I can unsee what I saw, oh and the moaning, can I unhear that….I am scarred

  9. How is it that after being married to you for almost 12 years, you only mention that tortoises make this noise now? I am actually crying with the laughter. It has completely made my day. It’s now officially official; I have the sense of humor of a teenage boy.

  10. ioniamartin says:

    Perfectly in time for the recent world turtle day:)

  11. Buzzwordz says:

    I am shocked by your rampant use of pornography just to get your numbers up! It smacks of desperation.

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