The Texas tortoise is a protected species and one of four tortoise species that are endemic to North America. The plates or “scutes” of its shell are yellowish-orange and "horned", and it has cylindrical, columnar hind legs, like an elephant’s legs. The carapace of males is slightly longer and narrower, and their plastron is concave. Severe population decline of these tortoises has been due to factors such as heavy exploitation by the pet trade and a low reproductive rate. In 1977 it was listed as a protected nongame (threatened) species, giving it protection from being possessed, taken, transported, exported, or sold.
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The Texas tortoise lives in southern Texas in the USA and in north-east Mexico. In Mexico it inhabits semi-desert areas and in southern Texas it lives in scrub forests in humid, subtropical areas, preferring open scrub woods and well-drained, sandy soils.
Habits and lifestyle
The Texas tortoise in southern Texas may be active year-round. Texas tortoises are solitary and have significant contact with the opposite sex only when mating. It is a diurnal species which during the hot summers is bimodal, with activity for several hours in the early morning and the last few hours before nightfall. Unlike other gopherus species, a Texas tortoise does not dig a burrow of any great size. Instead, it uses its front legs and the sides of its shell to push away soil and debris to make a shallow resting place known as a pallet. This is typically under a cactus or bush, and it returns to the pallet time after time, the pallet gradually gets deeper, until about 1.5 meters deep. Sometimes it will use a suitably-sized burrow made by a mammal and may further excavate it.
bale, nest, turn, dole, creep
Diet and nutrition
Texas tortoises are omnivorous and mostly eat grasses and herbs, but also the red flowers, fruits, and stems of prickly pears (Opuntia cacti). They sometimes also eat insects, snails, animal bones and fecal matter.
Little is known about the mating system of Texas tortoises. However, like other tortoise species, they might exhibit polygynous (one male to many females), polyandrous (one female to many males) or polygynandrous (promiscuous) (both sexes have multiple mates) mating systems. Courtship and mating in Texas has its season from June to September. During courtship, a male will follow a female, bobbing his head towards her. When he catches up to her, he tries to stop her with bites to her head, front feet and the rear of her shell, and ramming into with his gular projection, which is a sturdy extension at the front of his lower shell, just below his chin. The female often pivots around to avoid him, but will eventually stop and withdraw her head, as he continues to engage with her. Nesting is between April and July, when females lay usually 2 or 3 eggs in a hollow in the ground. In a year, one or sometimes two clutches are laid, with the eggs hatching after 88 - 118 days. Texas tortoises mature slowly and it seems that females may not be ready to breed successfully until at least the age of 10.
In parts of its range, numbers of the Texas tortoise are falling due to intensive agriculture. Although light grazing by cattle may be beneficial because it encourages the growth of prickly pears, the natural habitat of this species is destroyed by large-scale intensive agriculture. In the past, many of these animals were captured for the pet trade. In Texas this is now illegal but the trade continues. A lesser number are collected for food. Many Texas tortoises are also killed on roads each year.
The IUCN Red List and other sources do not provide the Texas tortoise total population size. Currently this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List.
Fun facts for kids
- Texas tortoises are the smallest North American tortoises.
- A tortoise’s shell is sensitive to touch, as shells have nerve endings. Tortoises can therefore feel every rub, touch or scratch, which they sometimes love.
- Tortoises are reproductively mature according to their size, not age.
- Tortoises can extract nutrients and water from even the tiniest morsels. Their hindgut system works in the manner of a double digestive tract, separating the water from the waste. When water is scarce, their bodies hold on to water waste and excrete the urates only, which have the appearance of white toothpaste.
- A tortoise is able to smell with its throat. As with other reptiles, it can detect the faintest smell with its vomeronasal organ, also called Jacobson's Organ, which is on the roof of its mouth. Instead of flicking its tongue, it pumps its throat to circulate air through its nose and around its mouth.