In the Indian Ocean, northeast of Madagascar is the archipelago known as the Seychelles. This independent republic is comprised of 115 islands located just south of the equator. Among them is the largest raised coral atoll in the world, the Aldabra Atoll.
Located 750 miles southwest of the Seychelles capital, this isolated island group is home to a giant. This massive creature is the second largest land tortoise in the world, the Aldabra Giant Tortoise.
Dark gray or black in color with a highly domed thick shell, they possess a very long neck, which is useful for grazing and reaching higher vegetation. Their legs are short and thick, and the front ones are protected by the presence of large scales. Both front and back feet have powerful claws which aid in digging. The tail is short and has a claw-like spur on the tip.
Male Aldabra Giant Tortoises can grow a shell, known as the carapace, up to 5 feet long. They may weigh more than 550 pounds. Females look very similar to males, though they are typically smaller in size and males have a longer, thicker tail.
The Aldabra tortoise primarily feeds on vegatation, such as plant leaves, flowers, fruits and berries, but they are also known to supplement their diet by feeding on small invertebrates and even carrion – including dead tortoises.
After mating, the female will lay between 5 and 25 tennis ball-sized eggs, however usually less than half are fertile. In areas where other female tortoises are also present, each animal tends to lay fewer eggs. In less crowded populations, a second clutch of eggs may be laid within the same breeding season.
The incubation time for the eggs is based on the air temperature. In warmer weather, eggs hatch in about 110 days but if cooler temperatures are common, the eggs may take up 250 days to hatch.
Aldabra tortoises can live extremely long lives. Exact records have not always been reliable since they often outlive those studying them, but many animals have lived more than 100 years. According to ZooTampa, the oldest recorded Aldabra tortoise was 152 years old.
Natively found exclusively on the Aldabra Atoll, the tortoises take advantage of many different habitats. They can be found in areas such as scrubland, mangrove swamp, and coastal dunes, they have even been observed swimming in the coastal waters. The largest population of tortoises are found on the grasslands.
The Aldabra tortoise is the largest animal on the atoll. Quite vital to their ecosystem, the tortoises role is very similar to that of the elephants in Africa and Asia. As with elephants, they are the main consumers of vegetation and will noticeably alter the habitat during their search for food. Tortoises have been known to knock over small trees and shrubs while foraging. This routine provides clearings and paths through the habitat that are useful for other species to travel.
As the tortoise feeds it also acts as a seed disperser. Seeds passing through digestive tract are deposited elsewhere and eventually become food for many other animals.
Many giant tortoise species are thought to have once lived on most continents around the world, sadly most no longer survive. The Aldabra tortoise is last giant tortoise species left in the eastern hemisphere and was also once threatened with extinction.
Slow moving and easy to catch, they were often caught and kept aboard ships for food. When French settlers first arrived in the Seychelles, domestic animals like goats would deplete the vegetation much quicker than the slow moving tortoise could get to it. Currently the Aldabra tortoise is listed as vulnerable.
Today, the Aldabra Atoll is listed as a World Heritage Site. This remote location has a very small permanent settlement of contract laborers and strict regulations governing the island’s accessibility are in force to protect its fragile ecosystem.
Other islands among the Seychelles, such as Alphonse Island, are also home to the giants. 10 Aldabra tortoise were introduced in 1999. Scientists and researchers have been able to monitor and study the population. Today there are now more than 50 Aldabra tortoises allowed to live freely among the island in their native habitat.
Located along the entire western coast of South America, the Andes mountain range is about 4,500 miles long. It is the longest mountain range in the world. With extremely high plateaus and the highest peaks in the Western Hemisphere, the Andes mountain range is home to South America’s only native bear species.
The Andean bear, named after it’s home range, is also known as the Spectacled bear. Though mostly black or dark brown, these bears have a whitish cream fur on their muzzle and chest with circular markings on their face resembling eyeglasses – once referred to as spectacles.
These markings also led to their scientific name – Tremarctos ornatus, meaning “decorated bear.” These markings are unique to each bear and can be used as a form of identification for each individual.
With the long, shaggy fur to aid in keeping them warm, the are found in a variety of habitats throughout the Andes mountains including forests, shrubs and grasslands. Many live at elevations of 6,000 to 8,800 feet, but some may be found as high as 15,000 ft above sea level.
Andean bears weigh between 130 and 340 pounds. They measure up to 3 feet at the shoulder and grow up to 6 feet long – males may be up to 50 percent larger than females.
Arboreal in nature, Andean bears are considered the most tree-dwelling bears in the world. One of the smaller bear species, they are very clever and will build platforms in the trees to reach food and to sleep in. In addition to being excellent climbers, they are also good swimmers.
Like many bears, they are omnivorous. Andean bears tend to eat plants including fruits, berries, bromeliads, grasses, cacti and will occasionally eat small animals, but only about 5% of their diet consists of meat.
They are generally solitary and typically only come together for breeding. Like wolverines and some other animal species, female Andean bears experience delayed implantation after mating, so cubs will begin to develop when resources are sufficient.
Andean bears do not hibernate but pregnant females will give birth in a den to one, two or occasionally three cubs who are completely dependent on their mother. Newborns are toothless, blind, nearly bald and weigh between 10 and 18 ounces. Their eyes open at about 4-6 weeks of age and do not leave the den until about 3 months. Cubs may stay with their mother for a year and become mature between 4 and 7 years old. Their average lifespan in the wild is thought to be around 20 years.
The Andean bears current status is listed as vulnerable. They are losing their habitat to human activities like lumber, livestock farming, mining and the construction of roadways.
While they have been known to raid corn fields for food near settlements, Andean bears are rather peaceful and tend to avoid people. They may be killed to protect crops or for being a perceived threat to livestock, however it is known that these bears eat very little meat, most of which are small rodents, insects and some birds.
Even though there are international trade laws protecting them, these bears are still poached for their meat or body parts which are believed to hold medicinal properties in some cultures.
Due to the Andean bears elusive and shy nature, they are often difficult to study in their native habitat but field research is ongoing in hopes to establish an effective conservation strategy for their continents only living bear species.
A common sight on the plains of Africa is the familiar striped pattern of the zebra. Many people may think that a zebra is simply – a zebra. In fact, there are three species of zebra – the Grevy’s zebra, the mountain zebra and the most common, the plains zebra.
While a zebra’s stripe pattern is totally unique for each individual animal, each species also exhibits a peculiar but common marking trait.
The Grevy’s species has the most stripes, sometimes as many as 80 narrow markings. They also possess a black stripe down their back.
Mountain zebra stripes total around 40, their hindquarter stripes are broader than in other species and they have a black stripe running along their belly.
The plains zebra typically has 25 to 30 wide stripes, it has also been noted that the stripes of plains zebra appear to be wider on those animals found further south on the continent.
The zebra is the largest of the wild horses. The Grevy’s zebra is the biggest and has the largest ears of the three species. Males may weigh over 900 pounds and stand 4 and half feet at the shoulder – a common form of measuring horses.
Mountain zebras have a dewlap on the neck resembling an adam’s apple, they have more rounded ears, and have pointed hooves which make them good climbers.
While the plains zebra, the most commonly found in Africa are distinguished by several subspecies including the Grant’s zebra, the smallest subspecies and the Half-Maned Zebra which may lack a mane altogether.
The mountain zebras, which include the Cape mountain and the Hartmann’s mountain zebra are typically found in the slopes and plateaus of South West Africa’s mountainous regions.
The Grevy’s zebra is the most endangered of the species, it is estimated there are less than 2,500 animals remaining in Africa. These animals prefer arid, wooded and bush-covered grasslands and stony plains. Found only in parts of Ethiopia and Kenya they also have the smallest distribution range of any zebra. Many local zoos participate in the Grevy’s zebra Species Survival Plan, an AZA initiative to protect future generations of animal species.
The plains zebra have the largest widespread distribution of all wild horses and can be found in the large grasslands of Eastern and Southern Africa, including the Serengeti plains of northern Tanzania.
The social structure of the plains zebra is marked by a group, called a harem. It is comprised of a single male, called a stallion, several females, or mares, and their offspring. Each group remains together but during certain times of the year many harems may join to form larger herds that migrate across the Serengeti plains. These huge gatherings are often numbered in the thousands and represents one of the most famous events in Africa.
The Grevy’s zebra differ from the plains zebra in that a single male will mark and defend a particular territory where other zebras are allowed to roam, however during breeding season the resident male will often fight and drive off other males when females are present.
Zebras will often communicate with one another through loud braying or barking sounds as well as facial expressions. Using signals like wide-open eyes, the positioning of their ears, or showing their teeth are all different ways an animal may express certain temperaments. The more social species like the mountain and plains zebras spend time grooming each other as a way of bonding.
Zebras are primarily grass-eaters, though during certain times of famine they may also consume bark from trees and other coarse vegetation. Due to the lower nutritional value of the grasses they eat, zebra spend as much as 60-70 percent of their day grazing.
A zebras cheek teeth are specialized to withstand wear, with a hard, resistant grinding surface they can mince grass into small pieces. Their incisors aid in cropping grass stems and are also useful in defense.
A zebra’s stripes can be used to identify individuals in the herd, this is especially true of foals who must learn to recognize their mother. The stripes are also believed to aid as a form of camouflage against predators. The markings may confuse a predator, or otherwise cause the herd to collectively disappear in the distant, shimmering sunlight glowing across the plains.
The greatest weapon and defense a zebra has is it’s powerful kick. They are able to seriously injure would be predators which include lions, leopards, cheetah and hyenas. When threatened, the dominant male will actually take up position in the back of the herd to defend against the oncoming threat while the mares and foals run for safety.
The most common question about zebras is regarding it’s color. Is a zebra black with white stripes or white with black stripes? There are actually different opinions about the proper answer.
The belly of a zebra is white leading some to say they are white with black stripes, however many animals possess a disruptive coloration where the underside tends to be the opposite of the dominant color. Local people in Africa tend to say the animals are black with white stripes and in fact, a zebra’s skin is black beneath the fur. However you see a zebra may be a personal preference, but one thing is certain – they are one of the most iconic animals of the African plains.
Special thanks to the following organizations for their research, education and conservation programs that provided information for this episode:
Alphonse Island Tourism Site
Cleveland Metroparks Zoo / Cleveland Zoological Society
SeaWorld Animal Guide
The Seychelles Tourism Board
Saint Louis Zoo
San Diego Zoo Global
Smithsonian’s National Zoo
Utah’s Hogle Zoo
Wildlife Conservation Society
ZooTampa at Lowry Park
For original wildlife artwork and more amazing animal facts visit: