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New at the Zoo: Home’s Hinge-back Tortoises

  • Home's Hinge-Back Tortoise at the Reptile Discovery Center

Three new Home’s hinge-back tortoises recently made their debut at the Reptile Discovery Center! Get the scoop on these totally awesome tortoises from animal keeper Sara Hasenstab.

What makes hinge-back tortoises unique?

Their shells! The carapace—the top part of the shell—has a hinge that allows the tortoise to close itself completely into its shell for protection. This feature also comes in handy when it is time for a female to open her shell and lay her eggs, which are relatively large. Another unique characteristic of the shell is its shape, which slopes downward towards the tortoise’s head and helps funnel water towards its mouth.

What do they eat?

These tortoises can be picky eaters! Of all the terrestrial chelonians, Home’s hinge-back tortoises are the most carnivorous. Most of their diet in the wild consists of invertebrates, mushrooms and fruit. That is very different from other tortoises, which mostly eat grasses and other greens.

At the Zoo, they receive a 50-50 ratio of plant and animal matter to eat. On any given day, keepers will rotate between foods high in protein, including earthworms, mealworms, crickets, snails and fish. We also offer them a salad mix made up of greens, vegetables, fruits, mushrooms and a supplement specifically made for tortoises.

If we gave them all of their food options at once, they would only eat their favorite items and leave the rest! To ensure they are getting a balanced diet, we spread out the items they receive. We dish out salads on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. Invertebrate prey is typically fed out in the late afternoon, but the day of the week and time are at keepers’ discretion.

How do they spend their day?

In the heat of the day, hinge-back tortoises will burrow under leaf litter on the forest floor to stay cool. We provide them with plants, logs, magnolia leaves and other natural enrichment so that they have the option of exhibiting that behavior. They will occasionally come out for a soak in their pool, too.

Does the Zoo plan to breed them?

Eventually, yes! These animals came to the Zoo from the Turtle Survival Alliance in South Carolina to participate in the Species Survival Plan. All are around 4 years old. Tortoises take a long time to become sexually mature, so we are quite a few years away from any breeding attempts.

What threats do they face in the wild?

Home’s hinge-back tortoises live along the West Coast of Africa, from the Republic of Côte d'Ivoire to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They are considered vulnerable to extinction due to deforestation for agricultural and industrial expansion, hunting and collection for the pet trade.

Got any tips for visiting them?

The hinge-back tortoise exhibit is located about halfway between the entrance and the gharial exhibit, on the right-hand side. (They are neighbors with the green-crested basilisk.)

Since they are acclimating to their new home, our tortoises are still a bit shy. If you are planning to come see them, you will have the best chance for success early in the morning when they are eating their breakfast salads. They tend to be active in the early evening, too, so visitors who stop by the Reptile Discovery Center later in the day may be able to see them up and about.

How can I help hinge-back tortoises?

Come visit them at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo! A large part of why these animals are here as ambassadors for their species is to help visitors make that connection and inspire them to want to help their counterparts in the wild.

One thing everyone can do to protect tortoises and other reptiles is to shop smart—avoid buying wild-caught pets or products made from animals, which could support poaching and the illegal wildlife trade.

This story appears in the August 2019 issue of National Zoo News. Don’t miss animal encounters at the Reptile Discovery Center at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily.