Posted by: chelonianresearch | February 16, 2014


We welcome all those interested in turtles and tortoises of the world to explore our website, learn about the the Chelonian Research Institute in Oviedo, Florida and plan a visit.

READ on!! We added a new feature to our website. We will post summaries (scroll down) of research trips, and we will also use this space to share turtle news of note and to post writings and essays. You will be able to subscribe to any updates (by RSS) that we post and you will also be able to comment on the stories posted. Check back regularly or sign up for new postings!

The Chelonian Research Institute is a private, 501(c) 3 not-for-profit corporation.

All content and photographs are copyrighted material of the Chelonian Research Institute. Please do not use content for any purpose without asking us first!

Posted by: chelonianresearch | February 18, 2014

Guyana Turtle Project Milestone!


This year marks the 26th season of a remarkable turtle conservation project at Shell Beach, Guyana. For a recent news article about the project, follow this link!

Guyana Turtle Conservation

Posted by: chelonianresearch | June 24, 2012


The face of extinction…Lonesome George


Today we were extremely saddened to learn the news that Lonesome George, the very last of the Pinta Island tortoises (Chelonoidis abingdoni), has died. He was found motionless by his keeper Fausto Llerena in his corral this morning at the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos. George died of unknown causes (although a full work up will be done to try to find out what happened).

Lonesome George was considered one of the rarest animals on the planet and he represented a long line of tortoises that inhabited one of the most northerly remote islands of the Galapagos. Morphologically different than the other races (or subspecies) of giant tortoise, George was found on Pinta Island in 1971, and taken from his island home to the Darwin Research Station where he lived since then, and where he could be protected. Efforts to find him a suitable mate over the years were unsuccessful and with his passing, we have lost an icon of conservation and an inspiration to many.

Recently, expeditions to Isabela Island led by Yale University (accompanied by Dr. Peter Pritchard) had discovered tortoises with very similar morphological characteristics as the Pinta Island tortoise. Genetic studies showed that in fact, those tortoises were found to have a good contribution of Pinta genes. There was hope that with some selective breeding, a nearly-purebred Pinta Island tortoise could be reared and the subspecies would not be lost forever. But today with George gone, it seems that we have lost that chance.

We will be updating more about this story as information becomes available. For more information about George, please call Peter Pritchard at (407) 365-6347. Dr. Pritchard was a participant in the expedition to Pinta Island in 1971 the day that George was relocated and he has written several books on Galapagos tortoises in general and Pinta Island tortoises in particular.

Posted by: chelonianresearch | March 29, 2011

News from Hanoi on Rafetus swinhoei

by Peter C.H. Pritchard

Recent news from Hanoi is that the old turtle in Hoan Kiem has a fishhook embedded in its leathery shell.  Opinions were split as to whether someone should attempt to remove it, or to let it be.  The urgency of the question quickly grew critical;  Dr. Lois Lippold, President of the Douc Langur Foundation in San Diego, received a message that the big turtle did not appear to be in good shape.  In fact, it might be dying.  Photos showed that it had a large but possibly healed scar area on the side of the neck, whereas the right forelimb looked inflamed and had the appearance of a bolt of raw meat.

Meetings were held. Committees were appointed.  Decisions were made.  Veterinarians offered their services.  A “hospital” pond was established on the Pagoda Island in Hoan Kiem lake, where it could at least have clean water and could be accessed by the experts.  Throughout the whole enterprise, thousands of Vietnamese citizens ringed the lake, hoping for a glimpse of the turtle.  Some said that the turtle weighed over 400 pounds.  Others said 250 kg.  Either way, it seemed that it might be the biggest known specimen of its species.  Internet reports indicated that the turtle was 6 feet long and 4 feet wide, but examination of photos with humans for scale do not back up this estimate.

Meanwhile, a team started to clean up the notoriously polluted lake, which is about a mile long.  The Associated Press listed the main pollutants – bricks and concrete, plastic bags and raw sewage, and not to forget large amounts of human urine.  The task of making a detectable difference in the water quality is a challenging one, but perhaps it can at least make a contribution, and if those responsible for the daily input of wastewater will cooperate, some improvement in water quality may occur.

Obviously, clean is better than dirty.  But what does the turtle need? Certainly, Professor Duc’s effort to remove sharp-edged bottom debris is a move in the right direction, and it might not be a bad idea to remove the red-eared slider turtles, native to Louisiana and Mississippi, that flourish in the lake and that may attack the wounds of the gigantic fellow turtle with which they share living space.  When the big turtle is spotted, the carapace is often covered with mud, especially during the cold months, a sign that it spent much time partially or completely buried in the bottom substrate.  Does it need that muddy substrate, and the somewhat murky water of the lake?  Perhaps converting the lake to one of crystalline clarity is not what is needed.

Last week a small island in the lake was expanded with sandbags to form a platform large enough for the turtle to rest, complete with a little pond.  Rescuers were hoping to coax it ashore but, when it did not emerge on its own, dozens of men waded into the water to try to gradually net the creature and drag it to the island.  But even with the military involved in the rescue, the turtle managed to slip through the nets and escape.

“I’m really glad to be part of the rescue operation and, hopefully, it will bring luck to my family “said Nguyen Thanh Liem, a retired Army captain who helped pull the net, along with dozens of other onlookers.  I wish that he would be immortal to bless our nation.”

Posted by: chelonianresearch | June 28, 2010

Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill

June 28th 2010 update: GULF OF MEXICO OIL SPILL

We are now in Guyana visiting our marine turtle field project for the next week, but we have been closely monitoring the situation on Florida beaches (as well as elsewhere) with regard to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and we will be responding as needed. In the meantime, we have created a new page for updates so you can read up-to-the-minute information affecting sea turtles and other wildlife as well as official response websites.

Please see the Links tab (above) for updates on Gulf of Mexico oil spill.


Posted by: chelonianresearch | March 26, 2010

PCHP on YouTube!

Dr. Pritchard is on YouTube!

Here he is talking about his life’s work on the conservation and biology of turtles and tortoises, and Galapagos in particular. This University of Central Florida program from the Office of the Special Assistant to the President for Global Perspectives just recently aired.

Watch it here! Dr. Pritchard talks with John Bersia of Global Perspectives

Posted by: chelonianresearch | September 4, 2009

Behler Award Acceptance

In September 2008, the 3rd annual Behler Turtle Conservation Award was presented to Peter Pritchard in Tucson, Arizona at the 6th Annual Symposium on Conservation and Biology of Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises. This is Peter’s acceptance speech.

To be selected for the Behler Prize this year gives me enormous pleasure. Recognition by one’s peers is something that is always appreciated by anyone involved in the sciences or the arts, and in this case, the association it gives me personally with the memory of John Behler is particularly satisfying. John and I were exact contemporaries – 1943 babies, both of us – and both of us loved tortoises and turtles. He was always welcoming, always supportive, always full of turtle information and news, and he was one of the most loyal colleagues anyone could have. It is wonderful that this annual prize has been created, and wonderful too that it has already been awarded to such iconic players in the field of turtle conservation as Ed Moll and Whit Gibbons. I am greatly honored. My shoes are size 14, but theirs will be big shoes to fill.

This award also gives me great pleasure because I have always been a somewhat undefinable or unconventional turtle man. Working for the Audubon Society and subsequently forming my own research institute and museum are odd ways of conducting oneself, compared to seeking a normal job in a zoo, museum or university. How is my work to be judged?

A more manageable question is: how has this Institute venture worked out? I believe it is a success and has good chances of permanent existence. We are registered as a 401 C3 organization. We have recently significantly enlarged our board of directors and will soon put them to the test with fund raising challenges. We are hoping to construct a new building soon, although it may require that we raise over a million dollars to do so, something we have never done before, and perhaps should postpone until the recession is over. We have an alternative project where we may purchase an existing house for a much smaller sum. We are attracting more and more overseas scientists and students. Within the last month we have hosted turtle folks from France, Madagascar, Burma, Cambodia, and Malaysia, and we have deliberately created a user-friendly approach where scientists and students can stay here at almost no cost, and undertake their studies from dawn to midnight, according to their own circadian rhythms. People are starting to recognize that we represent a good permanent home for displaced turtle specimen collections, and our spirit and skeleton collections now number about 13,500 catalogued specimens thanks to steady ongoing growth and episodic receipt of substantial batches of specimens. I believe we are now the third largest turtle collection on the globe, and may even be the largest in terms of taxa represented. It’s easier if you can just do turtles and don’t have to collect elephants and butterflies as well.

Three colleagues have made very interesting comments about our work to create the CRI. Roger Wood suggested that we were the world’s first turtle Think Tank, a wonderful concept, I think. Nicholas Mrosovsky suggested that my specialty was representing the “first wave” of discovery of new turtle beaches, with the long-term slog work, seasonal monitoring or technological experimentation done by others at a later time, and I think he was right. Grahame Webb in Australia ventured the thought that a collection like ours could never be assembled again because the world is now too fraught with regulations and barriers to open transport of museum specimens, and he too may well be right.

• Turtle people enjoy their work. I remember once when the Desert Tortoise Council meeting was held on the upper level of a Los Vegas casino, and each day the tortoise people had to walk through the arcades of slot machines to get to the upstairs. Somehow, the gamblers, plugging away at the one-arm bandits, looked miserable; the tortoise people, at work rather than at play, looked like happy kids. Turtle folks are not usually rich but they get to travel more than many of much larger income would be able to afford. Moreover, they visit the tucked-away corners of countries where the tourists are few or absent, and somehow the common interest in turtles can created a surprising bond with local people who may venerate, eat, or just encounter turtles from time to time. This leads to priceless anecdotes about some of the more unlikely encounters, and I would like to share a few of these with you this evening.

India is the locale of several of these adventures. Sibille and I attended the CITES meetings in New Delhi some years ago, and had the privilege of meeting and having conversations with both Mrs Gandhi and also the late Maharajah of Baroda, Fatesinghrow Gaekwad, one of the last of the monarchs of old India. Mrs. Gandhi and I talked quite extensively about the marine turtle situation in Orissa, and we subsequently had some direct correspondence on this topic. A couple of years later I returned to India through Calcutta to do some turtle filming. Our filming equipment generated a complete impasse at the border inspection; we would have to pay full import duty or it could not be brought in. We looked for every possible line of persuasion, in vain. Then I remembered the Indira letter in my baggage. Retrieving it, I passed it to the immigration officer. He looked at it in total astonishment – it was hand-signed, in Prime Minister’s Office embossed letterhead, then walked to the back and showed it to several other senior officials. When he returned, there was no further problem with equipment importation.

At the CITES meeting, the Maharaja had planned a series of outdoor tented receptions for the assembled delegates and environmental lobbyists. They were so lavish and colorful that the whole scene seemed like a flashback to the glory days of the British Raj; perhaps Lord Curzon’s Durbah itself. Somehow I was included in the Maharaja’s list of Christmas letters to his friends and colleagues. One of these described his New Year events in New York city. He had attended a concert conducted by Zubin Mehta, and at the end he was ceremoniously presented with Mehta’s baton. He put this in the pocket of his coat, and then realized that it was still early in the evening, and he was also feeling like female company. He left the building, caught a taxi and quickly found the required female company. She sat on the seat beside him, then two traffic lights later jumped out with his greatcoat, wallet and precious baton, and disappeared into the crowd. Without ID or cash on his person, the royal guest had the greatest difficulty even being readmitted to his hotel. But he told this sad story to his entire roster of friends.

One other little incident in India struck me as serendipity to the highest degree. I had taken a trip from Delhi to the Chambal River, travelling as far as the Taj Mahal by scheduled tour bus, then taking a taxi to Bateshwah and Bah on the Chambal. At a certain point on the return I counted my money and found that I had just enough for the taxi fare with nothing left for dinner; and it was a long way, and I was hungry. I discussed the problem with the driver and he told me to wait for the next village. When we got there he opened the windows, and multitudinous brown arms and hands were thrust into the taxi, all bringing us food. By good luck, it was a day in the Hindu calendar on which the faithful were obliged to share food with strangers, and we had just assisted dozens of people with their sacred duty.

One more India story. We had circled from India through Bangladesh and back to Calcutta. There was one more species of turtle we needed to see, namely Chitra indica; there had been several near-misses, but we had not yet seen a live specimen. In India, even the most agnostic herpetologist soon becomes increasingly religious, and we decided to get a blessing on our Chitra mission. By good luck, we found a representative of Mother Teresa’s mission, and we asked him if we could meet the good lady. We fixed an appointment for the next day. This would be good Kharma indeed!

I set out through the back streets of Calcutta to find the mission. I got hopelessly lost. The streets were full of Hindu celebrants – for this was the Phagwar or Holi Festival, when everyone throws colored dye at each other. Finally I blundered into a temple, but it was not Mother Teresa’s Mission; it was the shrine of Kali the destroyer, the most bloodthirsty god in the Hindu Pantheon. Fleeing in some terror, I was set upon by dye-throwing Hindu women, and by the time I got back to the hotel I was a rainbow of color.

And one last story. In Thailand, I had a tight schedule. I made a quick overnight trip to Chang Mai in the north, where we hoped to find big-headed turtles, then got the early, express bus back to Bangkok (all flights were full, indeed overbooked; buses were the only option.) I had to keep an appointment with Wirot Nutaphand at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Dusit Zoo. I got to town just in time, then realized I was filthy from field work and had no change of clothes with me. I quickly purchased a 75 cent shirt from a street vendor and squeezed into it, but I probably looked worse rather than better. We arrived at the site of the parade. I was escorted to a raised dais in which about 10 Thai army generals were decked out in all their medals and finery. Someone had mistakenly identified me as a VIP, and I was invited to join them. Never in my life have I felt so out of place. A foot taller than anyone else in the group, bereft of uniform and decorations, hatless and probably somewhat odiferous, but my fellow VIPs were polite enough not to notice any of this. But it sure was the best view of the parade!

Posted by: chelonianresearch | September 4, 2009

John Behler Reminiscences

A speech given by Peter to the New York Turtle Club on his thoughts and remininscences of John Behler.


Thoughts and Reminiscences by Peter C. H. Pritchard

A generation, or was it two generations ago, when we herpetologists were getting started, there were few books available about reptiles that were written at an appropriate level (not too technical, not too simplified), had good pictures and good stories, as well as good scientific information.  Things are different today, and there is almost too much literature in the field; the shortage is not in finding things to read, but in finding time to read at all.

So one of the few books we read (many times) in those days was Ditmars’ Reptiles of the World.  We learned that Ditmars had the world’s top reptile job – he was curator of herpetology at the Bronx Zoo.  And we dreamed of having that job ourselves when we grew up.  It would be so exciting that we would never want to go home at the end of the day.  Well, one of our number (although we didn’t know each other in those days) did grow up to get that ultimate job, and he earned it, working his way up through the ranks of the Reptile House hierarchy.  His name was John L. Behler.  And in a sense he did not want to go home at the end of the day; he died “still in the saddle,” just as Ditmars had passed on in 1942, 43 years after his first appointment as Assistant Curator of Reptiles, and just one year before John Behler was born.

Because of his pivotal position in the field, a great many of the present generation of herpetologists in America (and much of the world) had met John, usually making a point of seeking him out when visiting the Big Apple.  All have tales to tell, but one theme runs through all of them:  how John helped them.   He helped them with advice, with new contacts, with literature, even with specimens; he took time to show them round his reptile house, and passed on tips for getting rare animals to feed, to breed, or to do whatever else they were not doing and needed to do.  John did not just raise reptiles, he raised herpetologists.

John helped me too in many ways, over the years.  Within the last few months, he provided my turtle institute with a group of live spotted turtles that he had hatched a couple of years earlier; and he secured for me a complete shell of a very large male angonoka tortoise from Madagascar – a species of which we had no previous representation.   I knew he had had a heart attack over twenty years ago, and I knew that he was having new cardiac problems.  But he wouldn’t talk about it; he seemed much more interested in discussing turtles and tortoises than in talking about his health.  The last time we talked on the phone, his voice was reduced to a feeble croak way beyond routine laryngitis, and he had to tell me “this is John” before I even recognized who it was.  We closed the call, and I was left with a premonition that there would be sad news from New York, very soon.

But where John helped me most of all was in 1990.  IUCN had decided that the Pritchard/Swingland Axis no longer represented the leadership of choice for the IUCN Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, and envoys were dispatched to break this news to me.   I was hurt and angry, and I had paranoid feelings about many of my professional colleagues for a while.  During this sulking phase, I composed a creative but decidedly venomous allegorical composition in which I, naturally, featured as the One who had been Wronged.  John, and Mike Klemens also, responded to this with their own equally original, equally bizarre compositions, and to this day I have all filed together in a secret place.  No-one will be allowed to read them for another hundred years, although it is rumored that Jim van Abbema took a peep at them many years ago.  Klemens was astute enough to xerox his personal copy of my piece in case the fax should fade as the decades passed.

Anyway, the powers-that-be decided that John should be the Group Chairman.  He came to me in friendship to discuss whether he should take it, and it was clear that this was not something for which he had felt any personal ambition.  I gave him my blessing, we shook hands and embraced, and the Turtle Group was restored.  He performed his duties well and with total integrity – his hallmark – at all times.  But he also divulged that he did not intend to make the chairmanship the principal theme of his life; he also had a wife and family.  There is much pressure on IUCN group chairmen nowadays to manage enormous, world-wide groups as if they were an unremitting, frenetic “chat room” of which the Chairman had to be the constant focus.  John didn’t do this.  I can’t blame him. Things were much easier in the old days, when a specialist group might have a dozen or so members, who communicated only when they needed to discuss an important conservation issue.

I knew John for a long time, but we actually met only episodically – at herp or turtle group meetings, more recently at TSA gatherings, or on my occasional visits to New York, or his to Orlando.  But I remember especially well when we met up in Madagascar.  I felt that we were acting somewhat like two male sea lions – friendly and cordial, but subtly trying to out-macho each other.  I was traveling with two women (my wife Sibille, and Karen Frutchey), but John outdid me by traveling with a harem of no fewer than four females, including Dr. Bonnie Rafael.  But John lost macho points when Bonnie revealed to me that John was the only member of the party to have brought a hair dryer with him; none of the ladies had considered this to be necessary.  She also divulged that John had once shown up for work with his splendid head of silver hair somewhat darker than it had been the day before, the result of a discreet touch of Grecian Formula.  But the good-natured hilarity that erupted in the Reptile House resulted in his never doing this again.

John, of course, won back the macho points by his habit of bonding with his son by their going big game hunting together in the west.  You can’t get more macho than that. Two of my sons are marksmen and ex-military, but I always wimped out when it came to guns, and have never been a hunter.  So John won this friendly contest.

One more anecdote:  I once advised John that TSA was an unfortunate acronym for the Turtle Survival Alliance because TSA was a much older acronym, used for an historically ANTI-turtle organization, namely the Texas Shrimping Association, in addition to its recent use for the Transportation Security Agency (at worst a mere nuisance).  He replied that it was worse than that.  He had recently been reading his TSA bulletin while waiting for a flight departure, and had been approached by a somewhat lugubrious individual who had been reading over his shoulder, and introduced himself with the comment “I see you are one of US!”  John didn’t recognize him, and asked what he meant.  The upshot was that the man came from a fourth incarnation of TSA, namely the organization “Tourette’s Syndrome America.”

I shall miss John a lot.  He was one of my most respected and loved colleagues. I always found him to be a man of total integrity, a man above the fray of petty quarrels, who would tell you the truth and never told stories behind peoples’ backs, who would find the best in everyone and emphasize it,  who achieved wonders for conservation –especially of turtles – and who wrote superb field guides.  Above all, he knew right from wrong, a rather rare quality nowadays.  Debbie, our hearts go out to you, and we thank you for sharing him with us.

Posted by: chelonianresearch | August 27, 2009

The First Herpetologist…


The First Herpetologist I ever met.

Peter C. H Pritchard

I was very happy to read Ian Swingland’s recent letters about the life of Angus Bellairs, and I would like to add a few words of appreciation of my own.

Angus was the first herpetologist I ever met. He was the immediate successor to my father as Reader in Anatomy at St. Mary’s Hospital, my father (Dr. J. J. Pritchard) having been appointed Professor of Anatomy at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland the preceding year, and this connection gave me free access to a man I regarded as an intellectual hero.  My (signed) copy of his 1957 book, simply named Reptiles, is dated April 5 1958, when I was just14 years old, and just a few years later I started to write a book of my own, which I ambitiously entitled Living Turtles of the World.  Despite the clearly schoolboyish flavor of this early draft, not to mention the lack of personal field experience and shortage of library access, Angus introduced me to the concept of peer review (although we were not exactly peers), and he read the whole thing, making gentle suggestions in pencil wherever he saw fit.

Whenever I was in London, I would find my way to the dusty chambers of St. Mary’s (made famous by Sir Alexander Fleming), and knock on Angus’ door for a conversation on the subject of mutual interest, namely herpetology.  At such times, he would always open a bottle of sherry and bring some small-size laboratory beakers from which we would drink it, as he urged me to pursue an experimental approach to herpetology, by means such as studying underwater respiration in softshell turtles, or scute regeneration in chelonians.  (Somehow, I never became “experimental”, instead concentrating on natural history, taxonomy, skeletal anatomy, and conservation aspects).

Angus also introduced me to other herpetologists, including Miss Grandison, the Keeper of Zoology at the British Museum, a lady who had seemed rather remote and doctrinaire when I wrote to her, but was more like a favorite auntie once encountered in person.  I was also privileged, through her, to meet J. C. Battersby, on his very last day before retiring in 1961; he had been a “boy attendant” of G. A. Boulenger, no less, appointed in 1916.

Angus introduced me to the bizarre militaristic hierarchies at the London Zoo (Regents’ Park), where the “gentlemen officers” (the Curators etc) lorded it over the non-commissioned ranks (head keepers and below), only the former being admitted to such places as the Fellows’ Restaurant.  He himself was, of course, “top of the heap,” a scholar and a gentleman, although unpaid in status as “honorary herpetologist,” and I think his extensive wartime military experience was what prompted him to refer to the Reptile House staff as his “sergeant major,” his “corporal,” etc.  It was these same officer/NGO distinctions that had prevented Battersby, who lacked an honors degree, from officially becoming Keeper of Reptiles at the British Museum after many decades of service, de facto head of the department.

Angus also helped me get my first job, when I was about 15.  It wasn’t a paid job, but for a couple of months one summer I was a temporary assistant to W. E. Swinton, the distinguished palaeontologist, at the British Museum.  I kept expenses down by residing as a house guest in the London townhouse of Angus’s (and my Dad’s) boss, Professor Frank Goldby, commuting to work every day on the “tube.”  My work at the museum was chiefly concerned with locating and unpacking subfossil and fossil material (mainly New Zealand moas) that had been packed and distributed to safe remote country locales during the Blitz.

Following my relocation to the USA in 1965, I lost most of my contact with Angus (though was very happy to see him at the Canterbury Symposium), but in the late seventies or so I sent him some preserved severely deformed loggerhead sea turtle embryos collected by Angie McGehee, which he duly sectioned and described in detail in 1983 in the E. E. Williams Festshrift.  I, in turn, wrote an account of piscivory in turtles in 1984 for Angus’ own retirement Festshrift.

One was not to know that Angus would die of cancer just one year after the Canterbury symposium.  His last publication was a complete surprise to those of us who were only familiar with his herpetological writings.  It was a full length, 299 page novel, entitled The Isle of Sea Lizards. Details of exactly how long Angus took to write this work, or when he started, remain obscure, but it was distributed as a freebee to those who attended the Canterbury symposium, and presumably was never distributed by other means.  Angus held the copyright, and the book was printed and bound by an entity called Short Run Press Ltd. of Exeter.

The book is an exciting yarn, about the adventures of a middle-aged academic, who happened, like Angus, to have been a Reader in Comparative Anatomy, as well as a museum director, named Adrian Barnard, and his female American friend and colleague Jo Crockett.  Adrian’s museum is in danger of being wiped off the map by a visiting American academic consultant, a transcendentally obnoxious man who, with the help of a radical animal rights organization, eventually gets his come-uppance.  The story keeps us in suspense as to whether Adrian and Jo will become lovers, or even get married.  But they do follow up on a clue and a skeletal specimen to seek out a colony of living mosasaurs somewhere in the eastern Indian Ocean, and, for a while, they become part of the extremely singular culture and politics of the remote island of Wollstonecraft.

The book is a somewhat self-indulgent one (nothing wrong with that!), telling the reader a great deal about the values, preoccupations, and experiences of the author himself.  Academic politics, and the progressive exclusion of traditional vertebrate studies in the face of cellular and molecular fashions and enthusiasts, were clearly a major irritant to Angus.  Yet in his own career he was versatile enough to get promoted steadily, leaving Cambridge in 1953, and becoming Reader in Anatomy at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School, where an enlightened administration not only allowed, but even encouraged his interest in reptiles.  Later, in 1970, he was promoted to a Personal Chair in Vertebrate Anatomy at the University of London (a rank also reached by his fictional hero Adrian, who was offered the role of Head of the Department upon his return from Wollstonecraft, but declined it, except on an interim basis, because of the administrative overload that it would entail.

Angus was a “gentleman academic” more than he was a field man, but he did spend time on Isla Santa Cruz in the Galapagos in 1972.  I was on the island also at that time, studying sea turtles, but was unaware of his expedition, whose task was a study of the feeding and ranging behavior of giant tortoises by the Cambridge and London University Galapagos Expeditions, 1972 and 1973.  Later he told me that he did not really enjoy the trip, which published its findings in J. Zool. in 1975, with Angus’ name squeezed almost to the end of a roster of no fewer than eleven authors, most of whom were presumably undergraduates.  But it did give him material for an eye-witness account of Puerto Ayora and the Darwin Research Station, and not to mention the only genuine sea lizards in the world, in The Isle of Sea Lizards.

Reptiles casually encountered in the book are described with a level of anatomical and behavioral detail that only a herpetologist could have mustered.  Angus’ World War II engagements also led him to learn a great deal about Nazis, and unlovable German soldiers (and their offspring) of a great range of ranks and circumstances feature extensively in Sea Lizards.   WWII experience also perhaps gave Angus the background for the detailed descriptions of extraordinary injuries, fatal attacks, and bloody executions in the book, although his background as an anatomist may also have helped with these sections.

Angus also clearly loved classic English literature and poetry, and references to the Brönte sisters (and brother), not to mention Byron, Keats, and Shelly, permeate the whole story.  But the biggest surprise (or perhaps it wasn’t really a surprise) was that this deeply cultured and understated Englishman had a significant taste for the sexy, the mildly erotic, and the topless.   These parts of the book, unlike the violent bits, are always understated, never obscene in the slightest, written with elegance (and accuracy) rather than with a lascivious eye, but certainly with the eye of a man who noticed and enjoyed these things.

In this context, perhaps, I remember a midwinter visit to Angus and Ruth as an overnight guest at their home in South London in late 1967.  There was snow on the ground and I wore a warm woolen scarf that I had bought in Chichicastenango, Guatemala a few months before. When I came down to breakfast the next morning, Angus had picked up the scarf and was examining it with great delight – its hand-embroidered theme was one of multiple rows of copulating goats. He liked it so much that I almost gave it to him, and in retrospect, that certainly would have been the right thing to do.

Posted by: chelonianresearch | April 23, 2009

Galapagos Expedition


Peter C. H. Pritchard
Chelonian Research Institute
Oviedo, Florida


As long ago as 1835, the youthful Charles Darwin learned from the English Vice-Governor of the Galapagos Islands that the giant tortoises were different on each of the islands of the archipelago, and that “one could with certainty tell from which island any one was brought.”  Generally speaking, the claim was true, although the hatchlings and juveniles are indistinguishable, and even the adults show significant variation within a population.  But further explorations have shown that the isolated island populations differ in adult size, in coloration (especially of the face), and in morphology, notably in the height of the anterior shell profile, the length and thickness of the neck, and the openness of the front of the carapace.  Those with the shell form known as “saddleback” generally inhabit the lower, hotter, dryer islands, where food is limited and may involve reaching for high-growing leaves and cactus pads.  By contrast, the dome-shelled tortoises are able to grow to enormous size as they graze upon the lush grasslands growing on the rich, volcanic soils of the moist uplands of the larger islands.

The tortoises were exploited on a genocidal scale throughout the archipelago by buccaneers and whalers during the 18th and 19th centuries, and the settlers and ranchers in the early 20th century continued the slaughter.  The Floreana subspecies was apparently exterminated by 1840, and the very distinctive Pinta tortoise is also extinct on its native island, as we confirmed on our 2003 expedition.  The populations of Rabida, Fernandina, and Santa Fe do not exist today, and although isolated tortoises have been found on these islands, these were probably introduced and there may never have been actual populations on any of the three. A single Pinta tortoise, found in 1972, many decades after the race had been considered totally extinct, lives to this day in a corral at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, where, as “Lonesome George,” he has become the most famous tortoise in the world.

Tortoises exist on all of the five main volcanoes of the large island of Isabela, with some of the largest specimens ascending several thousand feet to the caldera rims of Alcedo and Cerro Azul.  Formerly, it was assumed that each mountain population was isolated from all others, and each was given a unique scientific name (species or subspecies).  However tortoises have also been found in the lowlands between each pair of volcanoes (with the exception of Perry Isthmus, between Alcedo and Sierra Negra).  The largest population, perhaps 5000-6000 animals, is thought to be that of Alcedo or Cowley Mountain, the most centrally located of the five mountains. On western Sierra Negra in southern Isabela, there is an isolated population of huge but flattened tortoises, locally known as the aplastados, currently being successfully propagated in captivity in the coastal settlement of Villamil.   Other tortoise populations occur on western Volcan Darwin and at various sites and different altitudes on Cerro Azul, with seasonal occurrence of tortoises near sea level in both cases.

Tortoises are quite widespread on Volcan Wolf, the highest and northernmost of the five volcanoes of Isabela, where the equatorial line actually passes along the southern rim of the caldera itself.  I have visited the lowlands of this 5600 foot mountain several times in the last four decades, in the later years accompanied by experienced National Park wardens, and we always found at least some tortoises, the most being 30 in three days in 2003.   An exciting recent event was the discovery, by helicopter-based goat hunters, of very large populations of tortoises in the highest parts of the volcano, rarely if ever visited by man.  It has been estimated that the tortoise population of the mountain may even be comparable to that of Alcedo.  Certainly there are a lot more than the early (1960s) estimate of just a few hundred.

Subsequently, there was even more dramatic news.  A team of scientists headed by Gisella Caccone at Yale University was able to extract DNA from some of the series of 15 tortoise skeletons (all males) that I had collected from deep ravines on Pinta in 2003.  Making comparisons between DNA from these animals and that of a series of a few dozen live Volcan Wolf tortoises, it was determined that there were tortoises on Volcan Wolf that had 50% Pinta parentage.  Even more dramatic, there was genetic evidence that other tortoises on Wolf carried genes from the long-extinct Floreana tortoise, whose genetics had been investigated by the Yale team using bones of animals that had been trapped in caves on Floreana two centuries ago or more.  With modern and ever-advancing genetic techniques, it is possible to dream that the Pinta tortoise and perhaps even the Floreana tortoise might once again walk the ancient trails of their native lands.

Where does one start?


More blood samples were needed to document the genetic status quo of tortoises on Volcan Wolf.  The Park Service agreed to put together a large team, totaling over 40 participants, who would be divided into small groups to undertake transects throughout nine areas of western and northern Volcan Wolf.  A partial funding commitment for the expedition was made by National Geographic Society. The search territories were mostly contiguous and were not extensively covered by lava floes, where tortoises would be unlikely.  The search occupied nearly two weeks in December 2008, and the search for tortoises was thus on a scale never before tried on this mountain.  The personnel consisted mainly of National Park field staff headed by Washington “Wacho” Tapia, with two American geneticists (Kevin Shoemaker and Michael Rossello), and the Italian tortoise geneticist Claudio Ciofi  included, as well as James Gibbs, an academic Galapagos tortoise expert;  Joe Flanagan, the chief veterinarian at the Houston Zoo; a professional photographer named Peter Oxford; and myself.  Famed Galapagos photographer Tui de Roy was the only woman in the party. Dr. Caccone arrived a week before the expedition departed, supervising all the planning details, but returned toYale once plans were complete, giving up her place on the field team in favor of an experienced Ecuadorian Park warden.

Joe Flanagan’s role was to teach us blood extraction techniques as well as insertion of subdermal PIT tags by which each tortoise found could be permanently identified.  (On my previous visit in 2003, the much more primitive technique of red-hot branding of the rear of the shell was used.).  The most vital members of the team were those with the humble but demanding task of being professional water carriers.  Each day, each of them would strap a five gallon plastic water tank on to his back, hike up the mountain, and deliver it to one of the camps.  If he got lost or did not arrive, there would be danger of serious thirst, or worse.

My role was, in part, to provide continuity with Pinta tortoise conservation efforts dating from the discovery of Lonesome George in 1972 to the present, and to evaluate the morphology of any tortoises found.  I was also part of Search Team A, with responsibilities to photograph every tortoise found from standard angles, make various measurements of the shells, and keep notes.  Each tortoise encountered had to submit to our battery of tests and manipulations – blood sample, PIT tag, external painted number, precise GPS location, measurements over curve and straight line, sex, etc., as well as to record any peculiarities of shape that might indicate exotic ancestry. The DNA analysis would take place back at Yale, and the hope was that the genetically “interesting” tortoises could be identified by the PIT tags and painted numbers, and by their GPS locations.  Actually finding them on a later expedition was the weakest link in the plan; some tortoises might have minuscule home ranges that they never left; but others might migrate thousands of feet up or down the mountain.  Radio transmitters on the tortoises would have been useful for locating the animals later, but with a target of 2000 tortoises this was beyond the reach of the budget.


The group broke down into nine sub-teams, each operating in a designated, GPS-defined area on the western or northern part of Volcan Wolf.  Team A consisted of two co-veterans of the 2003 Pinta expedition (“Pajaro” and “Simon Bolivar”), as well as Peter Oxford and myself.  The other eight camps and search areas were located progressively higher and further inland.  Our group was the last to be dropped off by the mother ship Sierra Negra, our landing point being a tiny bay, with a black sand beach fringed with lava and mangroves, known as Puerto Bravo.  Ours was the only one of the designated search areas that included shoreline – a disadvantage in that the lowlands became extremely hot, here at latitude 00.0 degrees, during the middle hours of the day, but there were compensating advantages, including access to lowland tortoise breeding areas, and the convenience of the seashore for bathing and washing.  More importantly, we were spared the task of hauling camping gear, food, and equipment up the mountain.

The mangrove fringe was not extensive, and behind it was rough lava terrain, but we found just enough tree-shaded terrain to erect a tarpaulin-roofed kitchen and four small tents, although the resident sea lion family did not yield an inch.  High tide came within a foot or two of my tent, but each night, from sheer exhaustion, I slept soundly for about ten hours.

Every day, we woke with the sun, breakfasted, and embarked upon a day-long patrol.  My water supply for each excursion was carried in two 2-liter plastic coca-cola bottles; I tried to restrain myself from drinking the whole four liters before getting back to camp, but the pathetic remainder in the bottom of the bottle was hot as blood by the end of the day’s trek, and hardly refreshing.  I reflected that I was probably thirty years older than the average for the expedition (although a few were close to fifty), and did not do this kind of exertion on a regular basis.  But I kept up, although my initial pair of shoes lasted only four days.

The northern flank of our area was a flow of frightful black lava, originating way up the mountain and not stopping until it reached the sea.  There were other smaller lava outcrops, and a fair amount of scrubby vegetation, the most abundant tree species being the silver-barked palo santo, totally leafless, and awaiting the rains (due several months later), that would cause the trees to generate a flush of green leaves overnight.  But right now, they were useless for shade.  Better were the huge Scutia bushes, the live ones a mass of long green spines with some short green leaves; and the dead growth equally spiny but black in color.  Much machete work was necessary to get through these thickets, but they were useful on two counts:  one could wriggle under them, improvise a mattress from the thick leaf litter, and spend an hour in the shade during the midday heat; and we also found quite frequently that we were sharing our shade with tortoises.

They were mostly small ones.  Between the lava and the trees and the clumps of vegetation, there was actual soil, in some areas so riddled with land iguana burrows that we recalled Darwin’s experience on Santiago Island in 1835, where he found so many iguana burrows that he could not find a clear spot to camp.   We were struck by the apparent grouping of the young tortoises – we might find three, or four, or five, of virtually identical size under one spreading Scutia tree.  They were never active; in fact I got the impression that no tortoise that we encountered had moved for weeks, yet they were all healthy and of good weight.  This extremely sedentary lifestyle may explain the curious grouping of tortoises of similar size:  perhaps there had been a successful nest nearby several years ago, and the emerging hatchlings had walked to the nearest shade tree, and just stayed there ever since, finding safety and enough low-growing food to eat to keep them alive, and all growing at the same rate.  We found one fresh hatchling tortoise, and saw a number of nests, some intact and others with the hole made by the emerging hatchlings clearly visible.   On the other hand, although we saw lots of half-grown animals, we saw almost no fully grown adults, although during my visit to the area in 2003 we had found several adult males behind the mangroves and within a few yards of the sea.

We found chopped-off plastrons (belly shells) of five adult tortoises, illegally slaughtered by fishermen in this remote, rarely visited area.  Perhaps these were the same tortoises we had seen five years earlier.  Were there any adults left alive in the area?

The answer to this question was evident when we started to walk further inland.  Everywhere, there were huge head-sized boluses of compressed, dried vegetation, that were clearly the droppings of tortoises – and not small ones!  It seemed that a herd of giants had moved in for the season, grazed heavily on the seasonal grass and other plants, digested this vegan diet, and defecated copiously during the humid months, and then decamped and migrated to the uplands, along trails worn smooth by thousands of generations of their ancestors, in the dry season.  The goat hunters in the helicopter had seen these tortoises on their lofty feeding grounds three years earlier, and even as we patrolled the lowlands on foot, three dozen of our colleagues were evaluating the numbers and dimensions of the adult turtles a thousand or more feet higher up the mountain.

Altogether, the nine teams were able to log over 1650 tortoises.  All were tagged, recorded, and processed, including the extraction of about 1 cc of blood from each for later genetic testing.  Our team’s score was numerically below average – about 91 tortoises. We were not embarrassed by this total, since the adult tortoises had almost all moved higher and we were the only ones to document the smaller tortoises on the nesting grounds and developmental habitat, still living where they had hatched during the preceding years, but not yet ready to migrate.

And we found the saddlebacks! The anterior height of the shells of Galapagos tortoises is somewhat variable, but nine of our lowland Volcan Wolf tortoises – 10 percent of our total – had shells like no Isabela tortoise is supposed to have.  We won’t have the full genetic analysis for some months to come, but my own background leans more towards morphology than genetics, and I have seen all of the surviving races of Galapagos tortoise in the wild.  These Volcan Wolf saddlebacks were the real McCoy.

Saddlebacks are found on Duncan (Pinzon), Hood (Española), and formerly Abingdon (Pinta) islands.  The tortoises of Santiago are semi-saddlebacked, and are as large as the giant domed tortoises of Santa Cruz and Alcedo.  Smaller semi-saddled animals occur on San Cristobal, and used to exist on Floreana.

The Pinzon, Española, and Pinta tortoises can be distinguished by eye, at least once they reach maturity.  The adult males are the easiest to identify; the adult females tend towards the same shapes as the males but, being smaller, the allometric growth is less advanced.  Males from Pinzon and Española are both about 30 inches long (straight shell length). The adult females are only 22-24 inches long – hardly giants, but not bad by continental standards. The Pinzon animals have a relatively wide, hoop-shaped arch at the anterior of the carapace, which rises well above the retracted head, and is indeed the highest point of the shell.  It reaches about the same height in the Española specimens, but has the form of a relatively narrow, angular, parallel-sided notch rather than a wide hoop.  Both have very long, skinny necks, and yellowish faces in old adults.  The Pinta form is known, apart from Lonesome George, from a handful of mounted specimens and complete shells in the California Academy of Sciences, the British Museum, and Lord Rothschild’s Museum in Tring, England, and there are some shells at the Darwin Station, recently supplemented by the 15 incomplete skeletons that I found on the 2003 expedition.  The Pinta tortoise is also saddlebacked, but is larger in size than the other two —  George is exactly one meter (39.4 inches) long, has a thicker neck, and the shell reaches its greatest height in the shoulder region (vertebral scute no. 2) rather than at the very front.  The anterior shell margin follows smooth curves and the edge is not flared or reverted.  Genetic studies have revealed that the Española tortoise is ancestral to that on Pinta. Even though the islands are hundreds of miles apart, the sea current patterns suggest that such a colonization is possible.  This ancestry may also explain why a strongly saddlebacked tortoise form occurs on Pinta, even though it is a relatively high island, with some good grasslands at intermediate altitudes, and thus by no means typical saddleback habitat.   It may thus have arrived as a relatively small saddleback, and the larger size today (or recently!) may be a response to this more productive feeding environment.

By the criteria above, the first saddleback we found on Volcan Wolf was a Pinta female!  Pinta females are a life form unknown in modern times, in that all of the specimens found on Pinta, alive or dead, since the mid-19th century have been male, and huge rewards have been offered for the discovery of a live female..  The remainder of the nine live strongly saddlebacked animals we found included both males and females, morphologically identifiable as from Pinzon and Española.  But this is, of course, all subject to genetic confirmation by the Yale lab.

The obvious question is: what were these apparently displaced animals doing on Volcan Wolf?  In the Indian Ocean, giant tortoises were taken freely from island to island by voyagers as local populations collapsed, but there has been remarkably little of this kind of transfer in Galapagos.  Natural dispersal by flotation between islands presumably occurred very occasionally in geological times, but hardly or not at all within the span of human experience.  However, Volcan Wolf is unique in having tortoise habitat so close to the shore that it is possible both for raiding parties to grab a few tortoises and escape quickly, and also possible for tortoises that might be tossed overboard from a ship to swim or drift ashore, and to colonize the littoral and near-shore zones of the island. Such animals, if saddlebacked, might find themselves well adapted to the dry lowland areas even of a large island like Isabela, and they may simply remain in such areas and ultimately reproduce, never climbing to the high elevations as the native tortoises do.  This was probably not a recent event on Wolf; at least one saddlebacked tortoise was found there a century ago, and they have been seen sporadically ever since.

And there is one historical event that may be relevant.  In 1812, the American admiral David Porter, cruising in East Pacific waters (without the permission of his superiors), decided to attack three British whaling ships (the Montezuma, Georgiana and Policy) in Banks Bay.  As he closed in on them, the British sailors started to toss large numbers of live tortoises (collected for long-term food supplies) into the sea, to clear the decks for action and to make for greater sailing speed. Porter retrieved about fifty of the animals, and others may well have been washed ashore in the Puerto Bravo area.  Floreana tortoises still existed at that time, and the Pinta tortoise was still abundant, and we know from Porter’s Memoires that “on the 8th of June (1813), a fresh breeze sprung up and carried the Essex and her prizes northward to Abingdon,” and this incident may well have resulted in tortoise collection, and possibly been the origin of the Volcan Wolf saddlebacks. Presumably reproduction and some hybridization took place subsequently – our own observations were made almost two centuries after Porter’s adventure, but the saddlebacks we found were mostly old, judging by carapace texture and sculpturing, and may, in some cases, have been centenarians, only a couple of generations removed from Porter’s 1813 exploits.

At the time of writing, there is extremely interesting news from Gisella Caccone at Yale, who advised me that “preliminary analyses on 95 tortoises selected on the basis of morphology (saddleback, yellow faces, etc.) from all the seven field groups showed the presence of 35 individuals of mixed ancestry, including either Pinta or Floreana genes as well as those typical of the native Volcan Wolf tortoises.  Another interesting point is that most of these individuals were from the A and B (coastal and near costal areas near Puerto Bravo), not the ones up in the highlands.  There are no pure Pinta or Floreana samples among the animals we screened so far.”

Gisella concluded:  “I hope you can raise the funds for completing the genetic analyses!”

Once these analyses are done, an important policy question will remain.  What should be done with the tortoises that show significant Pinta ancestry?  Possibly, some of these tortoises will have the physical appearance of Pinta animals, yet not show the crucial marker genes for Pinta tortoises, whereas others may not show this phenotype but may test positive for the Pinta markers.  It should be noted that many genes and large sections of the DNA strands in living organisms do not “program” the animal in any physically detectable way – they are simply space fillers. In terms of adaptation to the special conditions of Pinta, in may be the tortoises that show the prescribed neck length, shell form, adult size, etc. that meet the unique ecological requirements of the island, whereas those that do not show these features but that do have Pinta marker genes may be less well adapted.  It would also be something of an anti-climax if the tortoises selected for restocking of Pinta lacked the classical proportions and shell shape of the original tortoises from this island, and would only be recognized as Pinta tortoises by the concerned public because the geneticists told them so!



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