Tortoises and turtles are Animals of the Month
By Ben Rodgers
SUAMICO – This month’s NEW Zoo & Adventure Park Animals of the Month are from the same genetic order, but are very different.
Flapjack is a spiny softshell turtle who could fit in a hand, while Al and Tootie are roughly 450 and 200 pounds, respectively.
Al and Tootie have been main staples at the NEW Zoo for the past 20 years, said Carmen Murach, curator of animals at the zoo.
They are now about 40 years old and in the wild can live more than 200 years.
The species can only be found in the wild in the Aldabra Atoll, a remote coral outcropping north of Madagascar and east of Tanzania.
Just like the Galapagos tortoise, these giant animals have evolved over the centuries, along with the native vegetation they eat.
Commonly referred to as “tortoise turf,” the small plants and grasses they feed on in the wild have evolved and reseed from the bottom of the leaves, instead of the top, because they are consumed so quickly.
In Suamico, Al and Tootie have a large salad every day, and are generally pretty laid back creatures.
In the wild, birds will land on their heads and eat any flies or bugs that may be bothering them.
At the NEW Zoo the tortoises approach zookeepers with regularity for a neck rub, as it’s similar to the feeling a bird gives when it lands on them. The tortoises also have no shoulders or arms to rub their necks.
Aldabra giant tortoises are a threatened species due to two human factors.
The first is climate change. Because the Aldabra Atoll is barely above sea level, any changes to sea level could wipe out their native habitat.
The other threat to the tortoises is something everyone can help eliminate.
“Plastic is showing up on every shore of every possible island,” Murach said.
Though they generally have a vegetarian diet, they will eat meat when they can, which isn’t often because of their slow lifestyle. But a plastic bag can be mistaken for an invertebrate, and it can cause damage.
Though the 7-year-old Flapjack is much smaller and native to Wisconsin, plastic can be just as deadly for him.
Plastic doesn’t break down and can perforate his digestive tract.
“Even if it doesn’t hurt them outright, it fills them up and makes them think they’ve had a lot of calories,” Murach said.
People who don’t use plastic bags, or even take their drink without a straw, can reduce the plastic that can end up in front of animals.
Like his giant cousins across the zoo, Flapjack also recognizes zookeepers and tends to perk up when one comes by.
“It’s surprising to a lot of people that turtles have as much personality as they do, but they definitely have a lot of personality and characteristics,” Murach said.
Most people never see a spiny softshell turtle, because they are aquatic and like to burrow.
Flapjack even has an extra long snout that allows him to just barely peak out of the water for air.
But he also uses pharyngeal breathing that lets him breathe underwater, like a fish’s gills.
“They got a lot of special adaptations to live this life they live,” Murach said.
His shell is made of keratin just like Al and Tootie’s, but Flapjack’s is much softer, more like human skin.
Murach said this suits him fine, as normally he would burrow under the sand in a lake, pond, bay or river.
“They’re native to this area but you don’t see them often because they are incredibly aquatic and they rarely leave the water,” she said.
Flapjack is an exhibit animal, which means he does not leave his tank. But Al and Tootie have an indoor habitat and also venture outside when the weather is nice.
The NEW Zoo has also launched a special VIP program, where everyday at noon there will be a limited number of behind-the-scenes tickets available for purchase.
Al and Tootie will be part of that program. Those who take part can get up close and personal with two of the biggest zoo celebrities.
Details and tickets are available at https://newzoo.org/education/other-programs/vipexperiences.