The elephant turtle is the largest turtle in the world.


The elephant or Galapagos tortoise (lat. Chelonoidis nigra) is the largest member of the family of tortoises (Lat. Testudinidae) on our planet. Elephant turtles appeared on Earth approximately in the Triassic period 250–200 million years ago. For all this time, the appearance of the reptile has not changed.

Now known 15 subspecies of the elephant turtle, of which 5 subspecies have already become extinct.

People and ivory scoops

In 1535, the Spaniards discovered an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, 972 km west of Ecuador. On his islands there were so many giant turtles that they called him the Galapagos Islands (Spanish Galpago - "water turtle"). At that time, their population was more than 250,000 individuals.

According to the records of travelers of those years, huge reptiles weighing up to 400 kg and up to 180 cm long were then not uncommon.

The Spaniards began to use them first in the form of live canned food, and later to obtain turtle oil, used for medicinal and cosmetic purposes to rejuvenate the skin. In the destruction of elephant turtles pirates especially distinguished themselves, who in the XVII-XVIII centuries had their numerous bases on the archipelago. In the XIX century, the whalers who killed the females who came to lay eggs suffered special damage to the population.

Feral dogs, pigs and cats eating small turtles also appeared on the Galapagos Islands. Donkeys, goats and rats brought to the islands ravaged turtle nests. Herbivores doomed adult reptiles to hunger, sometimes whittling away scanty vegetation.

In 1974, only 3,060 elephant turtles remained. In order to preserve the species on the island of Santa Cruz, a scientific station was created, the staff of which collect turtle eggs, and later release the young juveniles into the wild. Thanks to the efforts made by the end of 2009, their population already accounted for 19,317 individuals.

The Galapagos Islands belong to Ecuador. On the uninhabited islands of the archipelago, the government of Ecuador in 1934 banned the capture of elephant turtles, and in 1959 founded the National Park. Their artificial breeding began in 1965. From the 8 turtles caught, biologists collected the first batch of eggs and obtained the first “artificial” turtles using an incubator.

Elephant turtles are diurnal. They like to gather in small groups of 20-30 individuals and bask in sun-dried areas with volcanic soil.

In the dry season, turtles leave the lowlands and rise to the highlands rich in vegetation. In the rainy season, they descend back into the warm lowlands, which are covered with lush greenery.

Reptiles daily walk the same paths from generation to generation, periodically arranging halts to refresh themselves, relax or swim. While resting, the turtle periodically raises its head high to look around the area.

During the day the ivory turtle travels up to 4 km.

With the onset of twilight, the reptiles hid in dugs dug in the ground or in the undergrowth. Best of all they feel in liquid mud or silted water. The nights on the islands are cold, so the heat in such reservoirs lasts longer.

A favorite delicacy of giants is the juicy flesh of prickly pears. Having found a tasty fruit or an appetizing leaf, the reptile holds it with its paw and bites it piece by piece. First, the chunks of the fruit are cut off with a sharp beak, and then pounded by the jaws and fleshy tongue.

In the dry season, when it is very hard to find moisture, the turtle gets water by eating cacti. To survive the drought it allows large reserves of fat, which when splitting provide the body with water.

At the slightest danger, the tortoise hides in its shell, pulling in its paws, neck and heads. The bent front legs cover the head, and the soles of the hind legs close the gap between the plastron and carapace.


In the mating season, the males show extraordinary agility and activity. They constantly scurry around the island in search of a female. If there is a competitor on the road, the fight will not be avoided.

The rivals swing their heads menacingly and open their mouths, and then with a loud puff rush at each other, trying to bite the enemy by the neck or legs. Sometimes a more agile male manages to knock an enemy down and turn him on his back. Fallen fighter swinging with all his might, trying to stand up.

In the tortoise turned upside down, the blood circulation is abruptly disturbed, and all the internal organs of the reptile begin to experience oxygen starvation. With a very long stay in this position, she may even die, so she tries to quickly return to her usual position. The defeated competitor escapes from the battlefield, and the proud winner gets the right to continue the race.

After fertilization, the male leaves the female immediately. Breeding can take place all year round, but seasonal activity peaks fall in June and February.

Females lay eggs in the same places with dry and sandy soil.

For several hours, or even days, the female digs a nest with her hind legs. The depth of the nest is about 30-40 cm. In it, the female lays from 2 to 17 round white eggs with a diameter of about 5 cm and a weight of 80 to 150 g.

Eggs may differ slightly in different subspecies. One female can dig and fill with eggs up to 3 holes. The reptile masses the finished laying and carefully smoothes the surface with its paws. A solid dry crust soon forms on the surface, but the humidity in the nest itself is maintained.

Turtles are born after 2-3 months at the beginning of the rainy season. In the case of a prolonged drought, incubation can last up to 8 months. Without rain, turtles simply cannot get out through a hard crust.

Newborns weigh about 50-90 g and from the first hours of their lives left to themselves. The length of their body does not exceed 6 cm. During the day, they hide in shelters, and at night they go out carefully to feed on young grass.

The young juveniles at the age of 10-15 gradually move to richer elevations. Gender in elephant turtles can be determined only at the age of more than 15 years. They become sexually mature at the age of 40 years. In captivity, puberty comes much earlier - by the age of 20-25.

The body length of adult Galapagos turtles is about 120 cm and weighs 200-300 kg. The front edge of the powerful shell is curved arc. Horn flaps of the shell grow all their lives, becoming fatter every year.

Legs are massive, columnar. Paws are five-fingered. All 5 fingers are armed with long strong claws. The head is flat. The muzzle is clearly narrowed ahead. On the tip of the muzzle are the nostrils.

The neck is long and mobile. It is covered with soft elastic skin and can stretch like an accordion. The upper and lower jaw are devoid of teeth and have very sharp curved edges, which are covered with horny plates. The eyes are small and oval, black. The life span of elephant turtles exceeds 100 years.

Long-lived turtle

The long-lived record holder is the elephant turtle Garietta, which in 1835 was brought from the Galapagos Islands to Britain by Charles Darwin. The turtle was the size of a plate, so they decided that it was born in 1830.

In 1841 she came to the Brisbane Botanical Garden in Australia. Since 1960, she lived in the Australian Zoo. On November 15, 2005, Australians solemnly celebrated its 175th birthday. Weighed "baby" 150 kg.

On June 23, 2006, the long-lived woman died suddenly after a short illness from heart failure.

Conservation status

According to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) classification, this species is classified as vulnerable. In the XVI century, when the Spaniards appeared on the Galapagos Islands, the number of huge reptiles reached 250 thousand. In the middle of the XX century there were only 3 thousand. The reasons for the reduction of the unique population were shooting animals for meat and oil, destruction of natural habitats for agricultural needs, import Islands of pigs, goats, rats.

In the second half of the 20th century, people remembered, and today the elephant turtle has noticeably added in numbers. Now on the distant islands lives 19 thousand huge reptiles, and their numbers are kept at a stable level.


These good-natured giants feed mainly on dwarf vegetation and grass. The turtles escape from the scorching southern sun by burrowing into the liquid mud, and for the night they dig out small pits, where they hide the back part of the body. Elephant turtles mate at any time of the year, but they have seasonal peaks of sexual activity. Females lay up to 22 eggs of almost spherical shape, 5-6 cm in diameter and weighing up to 70 g.

The elephant turtle can live from 12 to 14 months without food and water and not lose weight.

Ever since the Europeans discovered the amazing islands of Oceania, elephant turtles ruthlessly destroyed. Since elephant turtles can live for a long time without food and water, sailors took them on long hikes as “live canned goods”. In addition, dogs, cats and pigs introduced to the islands by Europeans destroyed young turtles. Fortunately, nowadays, the authorities are trying with all their might to restore the population of elephant turtles. And although this species is still classified as vulnerable, elephant turtles are no longer threatened with extinction.

The elephant turtles have made a huge contribution to the development of the general theory of evolution. After all, it was their, or rather the external differences of individuals living in different environmental conditions, Charles Darwin noticed during a round-the-world trip to the Beagle. The fact is that the size and shape of the shell among representatives of different populations of elephant turtles are very different. This made the great scientist seriously think about the influence of the environment on the body.