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The Story Of Wild Animals:
 Story Of The Squirrel

 Story Of The Otter

 Story Of The Civet

 Story Of The Crocodile

 Story Of The Sloth

 Story Of The Tortoise

 Story Of The Ocelot

 Story Of The Wolf

 Story Of The Badger

 Story Of The Hyena

 Read More Articles About: The Story Of Wild Animals

Story Of The Tortoise

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

The turtle which inhabits the streams in almost every part of the United States has a counterpart in the tortoise, a creature of such dimensions as to seem almost incredible. I have aided in catching these sea-monsters, some over seven feet long and weighing from 800 to 900 pounds. These specimens were probably over Too years old, for the tortoise does not attain its full growth until near the end of its natural life. Information which I believe authentic leads me to estimate the possible age to which the tortoise attains as not less than 200 years.

At the fore and hinder extremities of the shell of all tortoises are left large apertures, through which are protruded the head and neck, the fore and hind-limbs, and the tail. A large number of tortoises are able to retract both the head, limbs, and tail within the margins of the shell, the apertures of which are then filled up; such portions of the head and limbs as are exposed being protected by horny shields.

With the exception of the marine leathery turtles and the fresh-water soft-tortoises, in which it is invested merely with a continuous leathery skin, the shell of the various spaces is covered with a number of horny plates, which, in the adult state at least, are in contact with one another by their edges.

The species that generally forms the celebrated New York dishes is known as terrapin, but other species are also used. The best terrapins go by the name of "diamond-backs," and do not generally exceed some seven inches in length, although they may rarely measure as much as ten inches, but all terrapin of larger dimensions belong to the inferior kinds, ordinarily designated "sliders." Terrapin are caught all the way from Savannah and Charleston to the Patapsco River at Baltimore, but the genuine diamond-back belongs only to the Upper Chesapeake and its tributaries. The majority of the sliders are brought to Baltimore from the James River. The terrapin-catchers make from five to twenty dollars per week, and they find the reptile, or "bird," as the bon vivant calls it, by probing the mud in the shallows with sticks. The terrapin is dormant, and when found is easily secured. A four-pound terrapin taken about September 15th will exist prosperously in a dark, cool place, without food or drink, until April 15th, and (the dealers say) will gain two ounces in weight. After that time it gets lively and active, and will take hold of a finger with great effusion and effectiveness. The male terrapin is known as a "bull," and the female as a "cow." The latter is much more highly prized, and generally contains about thirty eggs. No dish of terrapin is thought complete without being garnished with these.

There is a tortoise found in the desert wastes of California and Arizona which has the same power to carry a supply of water as the camel; for, if one of these animals is killed, it is generally found to have quite a store of water in a bag of membrane which is fastened to the inner side of the shell, and which evidently answers exactly the same purpose as the water-cells of the camel's stomach. So large is this supply, that, if a man were dying of thirst in the desert, and could kill one of these tortoises, he would obtain quite enough water to last him for a couple of days at least, and so would save his own life by killing the tortoise, just as many lives have been saved by the death of a camel. If it were not for these cisterns, so to speak, which the tortoise carries in its body, it could never live in the districts in which it is found, for the streams and pools are so far from one another that the slow-moving animal might travel for months, and yet never find a chance of drinking. It is thought that its water-supply is procured from a kind of plant which grows in the desert, and which, when open, is found to have some little quantity of water inside it.

These tortoises are much esteemed as food; and in order to see whether they are sufficiently fat to be killed, the inhabitants are accustomed to make a slit beneath the tail, through which the interior of the body could be seen.

With the usual hardihood of reptiles, the rejected individuals appear to recover completely from this severe operation.

The Matamata is certainly the most remarkable of aspect among all the tortoises, and perhaps may lay claim to be considered one of the oddest-looking animals in the world, far exceeding in its grotesque ungainliness even the wild and weird créations of the Middle Age painters.

This tortoise inhabits South America, and is most plentiful in Cayenne. Formerly it was very common, but on account of the excellence of its flesh, it has been subjected to such persecution, that its numbers have been considerably diminished. It haunts the lakes and rivers, where it swims well and with some speed. As is the case with most aquatic tortoises, it is carnivorous, and feeds on fish, reptiles, and other creatures, which it captures by a sudden snap of its sharp beak. In general, it appears not to care for chasing its intended prey, but conceals itself among the reeds and herbage of the river-side, and. from its hiding-place thrusts out its neck suddenly upon its victims as they pass unsuspectingly within reach of their destroyer. On. occasion, however, it will issue from its concealment, dart rapidly through the water and seize a fish, reptile, or even a water-fowl, and then retire with its prey to its former hiding-place.

It is a large and formidable creature, attaining, when adult, to a length of three feet.

The manner in which the marine tortoises are caught on the coast of Cuba, and at places on the South American continent is of peculiar interest. It is the custom of the sailors in search of the turtle to watch for the female as she goes on shore to deposit her eggs, and in spite of the night and her efforts at concealment, she very seldom escapes. The fishers are particularly successful on moonlight nights, and when the poor creatures are come up with, they are either dispatched with a club or turned quickly on their backs before they have time to defend themselves, or blind their antagonists by throwing sand in their eyes. When very large it requires several men and the use of hand-spikes and levers to turn a turtle over. The marine turtle is so fat and its buckler so flat, that once on its back it cannot recover the use of its feet and escape.

The great Indian tortoise or elephant tortoise inhabits the islands in Mozambique Channel, and is frequently brought to Mauritius. Its entire length is about four feet; the shell, which measures three, is composed of twenty-four scales. This tortoise is very fond of water, drinking large quantities and wallowing in the mud. The larger islands alone produce springs, and these are always situated towards the central parts, and at a, considerable elevation. Hence broad and well-beaten paths radiate in every direction from the wells, even down to the seacoast; and the Spaniards, by following these up, first discovered the watering places.

When I landed at Chatham Island, I could not imagine what animal traveled so methodically along the well-beaten tracks. Near the springs it was a curious spectacle to behold many of these great monsters, one set eagerly traveling onward with outstretched necks, and another set returning, after having drunk their fill.

When the tortoise arrives at the spring, quite regardless of any spectator, he buries his head in the water above his eyes, and greedily swallows great mouthfuls, at the rate of about ten in a minute. The inhabitants say that each animal stays three or four days in the neighborhood of the water, and then returns to the lower country; but they differed respecting the frequency of these visits. Some tortoises live on islands where the only water they obtain is that which falls as rain, and the inhabitants of the Galapagos Islands, when overcome with thirst, are in the habit of killing a tortoise and drinking the water contained in its interior.

The tortoises, when purposely moving towards any point, travel by night and day, and arrive at their journey's end much sooner than would be expected. The inhabitants, from observing marked individuals, consider that they travel a distance of about eight miles in two or three days. One large tortoise walked at the rate of sixty yards in ten minutes, that is three hundred and sixty yards in the hour, or four miles a day, allowing a little time for it to eat on the road. During the breeding-season, when the male and female are together, the male utters a hoarse roar or bellowing, which, it is said, can be heard at a distance of more than a hundred yards. The female never uses her voice, and the male only at these times; so that when the people hear this noise, they know that the two are together. The female, where the soil is sandy, deposits her eggs together, and covers them up with sand; but where the ground is rocky, she drops them indiscriminately in any hole. The egg is white and spherical; one which I measured was seven and three-eighths inches in circumference, and therefore larger than a hen's egg. The young tortoises, as soon as they are hatched, fall a prey in 'great numbers to the carrion-feeding buzzard. The old ones seem generally to die from accidents, as from falling down precipices; at least, several of the inhabitants told me that they never found one dead without some evident cause.

The inhabitants believe that these animals are absolutely deaf ; certainly they do not hear a person walking close behind them. I was always amused when overtaking one of these great monsters, as it was quietly pacing along, to see how suddenly, the instant I passed, it would draw in its head and legs, and uttering a deep hiss fall to the ground with a heavy sound, as if struck dead. I frequently got on their backs, and then giving a few raps on the hinder part of their shells, they would rise and walk away ; brut I found it difficult to keep my balance.

The handsome Brazilian tortoise, which attains a length of nearly twenty-two inches, is an inhabitant of tropical South America, to the east of the Andes, and also of the Windward Islands, ascending to an elevation of about two thousand feet. In many wooded districts it appears to be very abundant, feeding not only on leaves and grasses, but likewise on the fallen fruit which is to be met with in great quantities. In the hot season it constructs a nest of dry leaves, wherein are deposited its eggs, which may be a dozen or two in number. When first hatched, the young are of a uniform yellowish brown color, with their shells still soft. The young, and to a less degree the adults, have numerous enemies, but the greatest are the puma and jaguar. Against the sharp teeth and stout claws of these voracious animals, not even the strong hard shell of the tortoise is a sufficient defense.

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