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Zoo Happenings

700 Pounds of Giant Land Tortoises Move Into Virginia Zoo

New exhibit and its massive inhabitants represent huge environmental success story

ajNorfolk, VA (August 12, 2010) – Five Aldabra tortoises – the second largest land tortoise in the world – are moving into the Virginia Zoo on Friday, August 13, 2010. The largest, a male named A.J., will be transferred to his new home at noon, and the big adventure will begin for this reptile that weighs 475 pounds, and his new fans!

“Our second largest tortoise, a female, weighs 150 pounds. We also feature three growing juveniles that weigh 10 to 12 pounds each, all in the same new Virginia Zoo habitat,” explains Greg Bockheim, executive director. “Moving A.J. is going a bit challenging but he does enjoy the attention. We will drive him in a trailer from the holding area to the new exhibit.  When he arrives, a team of zookeepers will help lift him out of the trailer.  Once he is on the ground, they will encourage him to walk into his new home, using his favorite foods to lure him.  We’ve found that A.J. is pretty cooperative; he enjoys the attention of his zookeeper escorts who will guide and lead him to his new home. It will be a fun experience for all.”

A.J. and Lynn are estimated to be around 80 to 90 years old. The youngsters, Dottie, Bubbles and Jackson, hatched in the spring of 2006. The lifespan of Aldabra tortoises is estimated to be over 100 years.

aj-marthaThe tortoise exhibit was built by Zoo staff. Its low barriers will help visitors feel even closer to the animals. Other examples of immersive exhibits built by Zoo staff include the red panda and the bald eagle spaces. “This exhibit will be giving visitors an up close view of a truly amazing animal,” notes Bockheim. “The sheer size of these reptiles, paired with their gentle demeanors, makes them as impressive as rhinos, elephants and their other African neighbors.”

Aldabra tortoises are native to the Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean. The cluster of coral islands is part of the Seychelles’ Islands in the Indian Ocean. They are the only modern day survivor of 18 large tortoise species that once lived on these islands. The other species were rendered extinct by humankind’s impact on their habitat. They were over-hunted, and their eggs were eaten by predators such as cats, rats and pigs that were introduced to the islands by sailors.

The Aldabra is the only species left, and it was near extinction in the late 1800s when Charles Darwin and other naturalists signed a petition to protect it, making it the first protected species. They are still protected by the Seychelles government and the wild population has soared to 100,000 to 150,000, although they are still considered to be threatened, in part because island eco systems are delicate and sensitive to severe weather.         

“These tortoises will amaze our visitors,” says Bockheim, “but our hope is that they also will inspire guests to realize that our conservation actions do make a difference.  The Aldabras are a powerful environmental success story.”

Some fun facts about the new gang include A.J.’s love of having his keepers to rub his neck.  He thoroughly enjoys the contact, and it helps train him to receive medical care. Lynn, the adult female, acts more bashful, but also responds to attention from the keepers.  The youngsters are quite small compared to the adults, and won’t reach their full size until they are at least 15 years old!  Although reptiles are often thought of as quiet creatures, these tortoises do have a repertoire of sounds they use to communicate with each other and their human caretakers.  These noises include loud grunts and sighs.

Starting at noon on Friday, Hampton Roads residents can get to know these impressive, massive tortoises and be inspired by their conservation story.


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