10. African spurred tortoise

2014 was a big news year for this big tortoise, with a rash of reports about escapees roaming the streets of Los Angeles, Dallas, Sarasota, Kenosha, and numerous other cities across the United States.

A number of others were stolen from their keeper’s yards, later turning up for sale on Craigslist.org. This tortoise was also featured in a controversial art exhibit that featured a handful of African spurred tortoises wandering the Aspen Art Museum grounds with a pair of iPads mounted to their carapaces. Though the African spurred tortoise is one of the most commonly kept and bred species in captivity, it is rare in its native range in northern Africa, and is listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

African spurred tortoise exhibit

African spurred tortoises carrying mounted iPads on their shells that stream video footage from ghost towns near Aspen, Colorado. Photo by Lynn Goldsmith.

African spurred tortoise

African spurred tortoises were featured in numerous news stories across the country in 2014 following their escape from their keepers’ yards and apprehension by local police. This one was recovered by police in Peters Township, Pennsylvania.

African spurred tortoise

African spurred tortoise apprehended by police in Alhambra, California.

African spurred tortoise

An African spurred tortoise found wandering the streets of Santee, California.

9. Moses, the Red-footed tortoise

In 2014, Moses, a red-footed tortoise living in Lincoln, England, made another contribution to our understanding of reptile cognition. Moses’ keeper, Anna Wilkinson, has been studying cognitive behaviors and capabilities of tortoises at the University of Lincoln since 2006, and Moses has been the subject of study in a series of papers published since then. In 2014, Dr. Wilkinson and her team, with the assistance of Moses, did it again. They first demonstrated that Moses could use touch-screen technology to receive a treat, and then showed that he could transfer memory of his successful use of the touch-screen experiment to a real-world spatial environment. Moses’ demonstration of memory transfer in tortoises is a critical step toward understanding the mechanisms that underlie tortoise spatial navigation. ‘Atta boy, Moses!

Anna Wilkinson with Moses the red-footed tortoise

Anna Wilkinson with Moses, the primary test subject in a series of studies examining tortoise cognition and intelligence.

8. Titanochelon

In 2014, researchers in Europe published the results of their 10-year study of fossils of a giant tortoise called Titanochelon that occupied Europe and western Asia during the Miocene and Pleistocene, or between 20 and 2 million years ago. The findings, which were published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, reported the analysis of fossil materials housed at Spain’s National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid. The fossil remains had been collected more than 90 years ago, but were largely forgotten since the time of the Spanish Civil War. The researchers provided detailed descriptions of the fossils in their paper, and named the new genus. At more than 6 feet in length, Titanochelon was considerably larger than modern Galapagos tortoises.


Artist’s rendition of Titanochelon. Drawing by Mauricio Antón.

7. Gopher tortoise

In July 2014, a shocking video showing the torture and killing of juvenile gopher tortoise went viral after one of the perpetrators posted a video of the incident on their Facebook page. An animal rights group, Nevada Voters for Animals, learned of the video and initiated a petition on Change.org to punish the two girls involved in the act. Tipsters informed the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, who conducted an investigation and worked with the State Attorney’s Office to file formal charges. Two girls, aged 18 and 15, were arrested and now face animal cruelty and misdemeanor charges of killing a gopher tortoise. Said State Attorney Angela Corey in a statement: “We will not tolerate this behavior in the Fourth Judicial Circuit. We are committed to fully prosecuting those responsible for the torture and death of this vulnerable and threatened species.” Gopher tortoise populations in Florida are considered by the state as threatened, primarily due to habitat loss, but also because of the continued threat of human harvest. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently considering the species in this portion of their range as a Candidate for federal listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Gopher tortoise

An adult female gopher tortoise in Florida. Photo by Craig O’Neal.

6. Indian star tortoise

Facilitated by a black market trade in illicit wildlife that operates primarily through Bangkok, massive numbers of Indian star tortoises were smuggled from the subcontinent in 2014. During 2014, numerous shipments of tortoises were intercepted by wildlife authorities—all of them destined for or transiting Bangkok in Thailand. More than 2,000 Indian star tortoises were confiscated from smugglers in 2014 alone; undoubtedly many more were successfully illegally exported to their destinations. This species is highly sought by illegal traders because of the striking patterns on their shells. Tortoise populations in India are under serious threat of exploitation for the pet trade. Though currently listed at Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, this species will undoubtedly be upgraded to a more serious conservation status in the coming years.

Indian star tortoises

Group of indian star tortoises confiscated by Indian authorities. Photo by Albin Matthew.

5. Agassiz’s desert tortoise

In 2014, protection of Agassiz’s desert tortoise populations became a central issue in a conflict over the legitimacy of the United States government’s management of public lands. Ignoring policy and court orders to remove his trespass cattle from public lands designated as critical habitat for the tortoise, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy staged a highly-publicized stand-off with federal agents when they arrived to implement a round-up of the cattle. Bundy invited a regiment of anti-government militiamen who were thrilled with the opportunity to intimidate the feds, and in the end, the feds backed down and released Bundy’s cattle back onto the public lands. The loser? You guessed it, the Agassiz’s desert tortoise. Though Bundy and his friends have long insisted that herds of cattle have no detrimental effect on tortoises or their habitat, a landmark study published in Herpetological Monographs in late 2014 proves otherwise. Agassiz’s desert tortoise is listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Agassiz's desert tortoise hatchling

Hatchling Agassiz’s desert tortoise in the vicinity of Gold Butte, Nevada. Photo by Michael Tuma.

4. Jonathan, the Seychelles giant tortoise

In 2014, the oldest living animal on the planet, a Seychelles giant tortoise named Jonathan, turned 182 years old. Jonathan lives on the island of St. Helena in the south Atlantic Ocean, where he was transported in 1882 at the estimated age of 50 years, probably to be presented as a gift to then-governor Hudson Ralph Janisch. Jonathan is one of the last surviving members of his species, a close relative to the Aldabra tortoise. He is nearly blind from cataracts in both eyes, but remains healthy thanks to weekly hand-feedings by the island’s only veterinarian, Joe Hollis.

Jonathan the Aldabra giant tortoise

Jonathan on St. Helena in 1901.

Jonathan the Aldabra giant tortoise

Joe Hollins hand-feeding Jonathan.

3. Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island giant Galapagos tortoise

The world lost an icon with the passing of Lonesome George, the last of the subspecies of Galapagos tortoise from Pinta Island, who died on June 24, 2012. In April 2013, George’s frozen remains arrived at the American Museum of Natural History, where they would be taxidermically prepared for his final pose. On September 18, 2014, the museum presented George’s preserved remains in a noble exhibit that will remain on display in New York until early January 2015. The Galapagos giant tortoises are represented by at least 10 subspecies distributed across the Galapagos archipelago, including three subspecies that are now extinct, including the Pinta giant tortoise. Other subspecies in danger of extinction include the Duncan Island giant tortoise, the Hood Island giant tortoise, the Indefatigable Island giant tortoise, and the Southern Isabela giant tortoise.

Lonesome George, the Pinta Island Galapagos tortoise

Lonesome George before his death in 2012. Photo by National Geographic.

Lonesome George, the Pinta Island Galapagos tortoise

Lonesome George on display in the American Museum of Natural History. Photo by AMNH.

2. Ploughshare tortoise

The Critically Endangered ploughshare tortoise, native to the northern coast of Madagascar, is one of the most highly sought after targets of illegal wildlife traders due to their rarity and their unique, highly-domed and strikingly-patterned shells. In 2014, the Turtle Conservancy and the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust launched initiatives to curb the poaching of wild ploughshare tortoises, which has been on the rise in Madagascar following political unrest that began in 2009. The conservation efforts include training and using community guardians and National Park rangers to protect tortoises living in their natural habitat; monitoring Asian markets that provide a hub for illegal wildlife traffickers; defacing the shells of captive and wild tortoises in a manner that identifies them and makes them less attractive to poachers and traders; and strengthening policies and implementing programs that would allow border agents to make more seizures within Madagascar.

Ploughshare tortoise

Managers of this species have resorted to ‘tattooing’ the shells of individual tortoises with numbers etched into the laminae of the carapace to make them both easily identifiable and highly undesirable to collectors. Photo by Turtle Conservancy.

Ploughshare tortoise

Education and training programs are being implemented to recruit local residents to protect wild ploughshare tortoise populations. Photo by Eric Goode.

  1. Burmese star tortoise

In May and November, 2014, the Turtle Survival Alliance, in cooperation with the Wildlife Conservation Society and assistance by the Turtle Conservancy, began releasing head-started Burmese star tortoises into wildlife reserves in central Myanmar. The program, which was initiated in 2011, seeks to restore tortoise populations to areas that have been depleted to the point that the species was considered functionally extinct in the wild. The effort involves the help of locals to assist with implementing the program, including animal care at the head-start facility and etching numbers and religious symbols onto the tortoises’ shells to deter poachers from harvesting the animals for the illicit pet trade. The “Sadapawa” symbol etched onto their shells signals to would-be poachers that touching or harming the tortoises will invoke the wrath of the local Nat spirit, the White Horse Rider. The TSA/WCS team is also using radiotelemetry to monitor the success of the released individuals.

Burmese star tortoise

Kalyar holding a headstarted tortoise exhibiting the Nat iconography etched into its shell. Photo by Turtle Survival Alliance.

Burmese star tortoise

Headstarted Burmese star tortoises showing markings etched into their shells prior to their release. Photo by Turtle Survival Alliance.