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May 2022’s Animal Of The Month – Indian Star Tortoises

By May 30, 2022 No Comments

May is an important month for turtles and tortoises. After all, World Turtle Day is celebrated – or should we say, shell-ebrated – on May 23rd every year. And this is why we chose to shell-ebrate the Indian star tortoise on Twitter @ExoticPetVets as our Animal of the Month for May. But now that the month is winding down, it is time for us to bid the Indian star tortoise a fond farewell. If you missed any of our tweets during the month, you can find a summary right here. Did you know?:

  • As their name suggests, Indian star tortoises (Geochelone elegans) are found on the Indian subcontinent. Interestingly, they are found in several separate and distinct areas on the subcontinent.
  • One of the Indian star tortoise’s natural ranges is northwestern India and the extreme southeastern corner of Pakistan.
  • Wild Indian star tortoises can also be found in parts of eastern and southern India. They are also found on the island nation of Sri Lanka.
  • In the wild, Indian star tortoises live in a wide variety of different habitats – including, but not limited to – arid grasslands, semi-desert areas, moist deciduous forests, scrub forests, sand dunes and agricultural land.
  • But the one common thread that runs through all Indian star tortoise habitats is that they have a very dry season and a rainy or monsoon season. They have a high tolerance for these dramatic seasonal changes.
  • The Indian star tortoise is not immune to being the subject of superstitious beliefs.
  • Despite it being illegal in India to possess Indian star tortoises since 1972, to this day they are still taken from the wild and kept in some homes because of the belief that they are good luck omens.
  • In other parts of Asia, some people believe Indian star tortoises have magical aphrodisiac properties and they end up in traditional medicine and food markets in China and Malaysia for this reason.
  • In Sri Lanka, however, some believe that an Indian star tortoise will bring a household bad luck if one enters the garden.
  • Also in Sri Lanka, it was commonly believed in years past that the meat of Indian star tortoises was poisonous. But recent local surveys suggest that belief is in decline as some people in rural areas are now eating them for subsistence.
  • Compared to other tortoise species, Indian star tortoises are on the smaller side, with adults reaching lengths of between 6 – 12 inches (15-30 cms).
  • Female Indian star tortoises are noticeably larger, growing to an average length of 10-12 inches (25-30 cms). Adult males grow to an average length of 6-8 inches (15-20 cms). They also have thicker and longer tails.
  • Indian star tortoises have yellowish beige tails, legs and heads, which also commonly have dark brown patches.
  • The upper part of the Indian star tortoise’s shell is called the carapace, which is dark brown or black in colour. The scutes, or bony plates, can be naturally raised in a pyramid shape while others are smooth.
  • It is the ornate pattern on the carapace that lends to the Indian star tortoise’s name. Each scute has a yellow-brown center with tan lines radiating outwards, creating a star shape.
  • The lower part of the Indian star tortoise’s shell is called the plastron. The plastron is also ornate. It’s yellow-brown in colour with dark radiating lines in variable patterns.
  • There are differences in the plastrons of male and female Indian star tortoises. The females is flat, while the male’s is concave. This difference in shape is to facilitate breeding.
  • Male Indian star tortoises have an interesting way of competing for mates. Rivals for a female will push each other around. The victor is the one who manages to flip the other on his back.
  • Mating usually takes place during the rainy season. Around two to three months after mating, female Indian star tortoises will search for suitable places to lay her eggs.
  • The female Indian star tortoise will dig her nest in the soil and will cover her eggs with soil after she lays them. She will lay 1-10 eggs per clutch (group of eggs) and up to nine clutches per year.
  • Indian star tortoises don’t offer parental care for either the eggs or the hatchlings. So after the eggs are laid and buried in their nest, they are on their own.
  • Incubation of the eggs lasts between 47 and 180 days before the Indian star tortoise hatchlings emerge from the soil. It will take the females 8-12 years and the males 6-8 years, respectively, before they reach sexual maturity.
  • World Turtle Day is every May 23rd. It was started by American Tortoise Rescue to raise awareness and educate people about how human activity threatens the world’s turtles and tortoises.
  • Indian star tortoises are currently listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, but their population is being decimated because of the threats they face from a variety of human activity.
  • Not only do Indian star tortoises have to deal with human-created habitat loss, climate change and pollution, but it’s also believed that they are the most smuggled tortoises in the world.
  • Thousands of Indian star tortoises are removed from the wild every year to be smuggled for the pet trade, traditional medicine and food markets – and the problem is only getting worse.
  • An estimate from 2004 suggested that between 10,000 and 20,000 Indian star tortoises were poached from their natural ranges in India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan – combined – every year.
  • But a recent University of Oxford study found that in 2014, 55,000 Indian star tortoises were found just in one rural village in one southern Indian state. They were all poached from nearby areas.
  • Now Indian star tortoises in Sri Lanka are facing a growing threat from a new locally-made tool used to clear brush.
  • Local villagers report seeing Indian star tortoises killed while brush is being cleared using this new brush-clearing tool.
  • While humans are by far the worst threat to Indian star tortoises, they also have non-human predators to deal with; including birds of prey, jackals, foxes, snakes and large monitor lizards.
  • Indian star tortoises defend themselves by retracting their heads and limbs into their hard shells.
  • The star patterns on the Indian star tortoise’s shell provide great camouflage that helps them hide from predators. The patterns optically break up the shell shape and allow the tortoise to seemingly vanish in the grass.
  • Indian star tortoises are mostly herbivorous, meaning they eat mostly plant matter. Their diet primarily consists of grasses, other types of vegetation and fruit.
  • Indian star tortoises may also eat insects and carrion. They have also been observed eating dry animal dung in the wild.
  • Wild Indian star tortoises have a wide-ranging lifespan. It has been estimated that they can live anywhere between 30-55 years. But some claims have them living up to 80 years in the wild.
  • However, Indian star tortoises are difficult to keep in captivity and will typically live about 25 years due people failing to replicate their natural environment and meet their complex environmental needs.

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