By Richard Schiffman
Tortoises are famous for living to a ripe old age. One giant tortoise named Adwaita is said to have lived 255 years in the Calcutta Zoo—he finally died of liver failure in 2006.
But news of a tortoise that lived 30 years in a shed suggests that the survival skills of these hardy creatures may be even more astounding than we had imagined.
A red-footed tortoise named Manuela mysteriously “disappeared” from a home in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1982. The Almeida family assumed that their pet had lumbered out of the house after builders at the site left the front door ajar, according to Brazil’s Globo TV. (Watch turtle and tortoise videos.)
Recently, Leandro Almeida was cleaning out a storage shed and threw away an old wooden box. As he told Globo, “I put the box on the pavement for the rubbish men to collect, and a neighbor said, ‘You’re not throwing out the turtle as well are you?’ I looked and saw her. At that moment, I turned white, I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
The box contained an old record player and—seemingly miraculously—their long-lost tortoise, still alive after more than three decades.
“We’re all thrilled to have Manuela back,” Leandro’s sister, Lenita, who was given the tortoise as a childhood pet, told Globo. “But no one can understand how she managed to survive for 30 years in there—it’s just unbelievable.”
How Did the Tortoise Survive?
Even the experts are stumped. Jeferson Peres, a Rio-based veterinarian, told Globo that red-footed tortoises have been known to go without eating for two to three years in the wild—but 30 years is off the known charts. He speculated that Manuela had survived by eating termites and other small insects and licking condensation.
Turtles also have reserve fat pads that they can draw on when food is scarce, Anthony Pilny, a veterinary surgeon and specialist in birds and reptiles at the Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine in New York City, said by email.
Like snakes, turtles are able to go for long periods without eating. Wild turtles can also lower their body temperatures and other physiological processes and enter into temporary states of suspended animation from which they’re able to recover. However Pilny does not recommend that pet owners try this with their own turtles, since it is hard to replicate natural conditions at home. (Also see “Lonesome George Not the Last of His Kind, After All?”)
As for Manuela, Pilny has some advice for the family. “They should go very slowly—start by warming her up and rehydrating Manuela before feeding … Give her warm water soaks and offer a small meal after she seems stable. Then take her to a veterinarian who specializes in reptiles for a checkup and some bloodwork.”
Red-footed Tortoises Require Lots of Care
In the dry forests and grasslands of South and Central America where they live, red-footed tortoises will consume virtually anything: fruits, flowers, leaves, dead animals—even feces.
They are also reputedly outgoing, curious about their surroundings, and enjoy having their heads rubbed. Moreover, red-footed tortoises have little fear of people, which is one reason they make such good pets.
But should we be keeping these wild creatures in our homes?
“Yes and no,” Pilny said.
Reptiles have specific nutritional needs, and they are more likely than other pets to suffer from a variety of captivity-induced problems and diseases. “Anyone who chooses to own a reptile must be committed fully,” he said, “or they should get a cat.”
Pilny also shared a survival story about his own red-eared slider water turtle, which somehow vanished one day from his tank.
“I looked everywhere, turned my apartment upside down, but to no avail. About three months later I was packing to move, and while cleaning out my bedroom closet, found him in a shoe buried in the back of the closet. He wasn’t responsive or moving, but didn’t look dead, so I dropped him in the tank. Nothing happened for a few minutes as he sank, but then he suddenly came alive and acted as if nothing had ever happened.