Guest author Dr. Joe Flanagan, Chief Veterinarian at the Houston Zoo, gives us a glimpse into the painstaking process of assessing the health status of tortoises at the Breeding and Rearing Centers of Galapagos, part of the first annual review of the three Centers in the Islands.
I left my home on Halloween day to spend a little over two weeks in Galapagos, working with a team of people passionate about the conservation of Galapagos wildlife — especially the tortoises. As a zoo veterinarian, I have cared for animal species ranging from invertebrates to great apes and elephants. But those who know me, know that I most love to work with turtles and tortoises.
In two weeks, I had the opportunity to examine almost 1,300 giant tortoises — more than half of the captive tortoises in Galapagos. The 180 adult tortoises in the breeding centers serve as the source of over 1,100 juvenile tortoises that will be used for repatriation to their home islands in the next few years. The average person, including the average veterinarian, looks at a chelonian (turtle) as a mysterious, black box: most don’t know where to begin when considering how to assess the health status of these magnificent animals. With the help of a knowledgeable team, we were able to conduct a systematic assessment of individual tortoises to determine the health of the population.
Our team consisted of at least four people working with each tortoise to collect them from their enclosures, ensure their identifying markings were clear so observations could be recorded and related to each individual, perform the exam, and record findings. The exams began before even touching a tortoise. We noted things like, is the tortoise active and alert? When picked up, does it respond? How quickly? Does the tortoise “feel heavy?” Tortoise biologists weigh and measure animals to determine condition, but we generally know the answer by just picking up the animal. If it “feels light,” it is probably undernourished or dehydrated.
We noted the appearance of the skin and shell of each tortoise — whether it was smooth, bumpy, soft, or firm; did it show regular growth rings or had it grown smooth with age; were there any extra scutes (plates) on the shell that might indicate there is potential for improvement in incubation procedures, or consideration for other causes of congenital abnormalities? We also looked at each tortoise’s eyes, nose, mouth, and cloaca (anus) to see if they were clear and free of swelling and for evidence of parasites or discharge; whether the beak or nails were over-grown; observed for symmetry from one side to the other; how joints moved; and any signs of trauma.
Young tortoise #99 on the left shows a normal shell pattern and number of scutes, or plates; #75 on the right shows extra scutes on its shell. This can be a sign of maternal nutritional deficiencies, genetic issues, or slight imperfections during egg incubation.
In addition to evaluating the condition of the tortoises, we noted how much space they had and how complex their environment was in their corrals. We looked at the slope of the substrate (soil); the presence of rocks for climbing onto or hiding beneath; and visual barriers such as bushes and trees in the corrals which would provide shade. We considered the size and number of feeding platforms and pools relative to the number of animals. In the breeding pens, we looked at nesting areas and ensured that the number of males-to-females was appropriate for reproduction, and would not lead to undue stress (as might be the case if there were too many amorous males constantly chasing the females).
It seemed we moved at a whirlwind pace from the moment we arrived in the morning, until the afternoon light was too weak to conduct a proper examination. It was exciting to be a part of the most successful and long-standing tortoise conservation program in the world. A greater honor still was to be able to spend two weeks working with Fausto Llerena, a man I’ve known for many years and for whom I have the utmost respect for his fundamental knowledge of Galapagos tortoise care.
We observed the great successes these Tortoise Breeding and Rearing Centers have achieved, and I think we also observed a few opportunities for improvement. Each Center has a slightly different way of doing things, with slightly different effects on their tortoise populations. Our team of Fausto Llerena, Wacho Tapia, Linda Cayot, Andrea Loyola, myself, and the tortoise care staff from each of the Centers had a shared learning experience — the result of which will combine the best practices of each facility into a care manual that will improve the production and vitality of tortoises used to restore Galapagos biodiversity.
Joe Flanagan has been a veterinarian at the Houston Zoo for 32 years, and has worked with the Galapagos National Park, the Charles Darwin Foundation, Island Conservation, and Galapagos Conservancy for more than 20 years in the restoration of biodiversity in the Galapagos. All photos © Joe Flanagan.
Read part 1 of the series on reviewing the Tortoise Breeding and Rearing Centers.