The Leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis) is a large and attractively marked tortoise found in the savannas of eastern and southern Africa, from Sudan to the southern Cape. It is the only member of the genus Stigmochelys, but in the past it was commonly placed in Geochelone instead. This chelonian is a grazing species of tortoise that favors semi-arid, thorny to grassland habitats, although some leopard tortoises have been found in rainier areas. In both very hot and very cold weather they may dwell in abandoned fox, jackal, or anteater holes. Leopard tortoises do not dig other than to make nests in which to lay eggs. Not surprisingly, given its propensity for grassland habitats, it grazes extensively upon mixed grasses. It also favors succulents and thistles, and (in captivity) the fruit and pads of the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia sp.) (cactus are New World plants not native to Africa). The African Leopard Tortoise typically lives 80 to 100 years.
Taxonomy and etymology
Its generic name is a combination of two Greek words:Stigma meaning "mark" or "point"* and Chelone(Χελωνη) meaning "tortoise". Its specific name pardalis is from the Latin word pardus meaning "leopard" and refers to the leopard-likespots on the tortoise's shell.
The leopard tortoise is the fifth largest species of tortoise in the world, with typical adults reaching 18-inch (460 mm) and weighing 40-pound (18 kg). Large examples may be 70-centimetre (28 in) long and weigh up to 120-pound (54 kg). An adult's maximum shell length can reach a 24-inch (610 mm) diameter.
There are regional reports of much larger specimens. Exceptionally the giant Ethiopian form might reach 100-centimetre (39 in). In humid forests in southern Sudan Stigmochelys pardalis may attain lengths of 45 inches.
The carapace is high and domed, sometimes with pyramid shaped scutes. Juveniles and young adults are attractively marked and the markings on each individual are unique. The skin and background colour are cream to yellow, and the carapace is marked with black blotches, spots or even dashes or stripes. However, in mature adults the markings tend to fade to a slaty, nondescript brown or grey, commonly tinged with the local dust.
Leopard tortoises are herbivorous. They are more defensive than offensive, retracting feet and head into their shell for protection. This often results in a hissing sound, probably due to the squeezing of air from the lungs as the limbs and head are retracted.
Like most tortoises, they can retract their head and feet into their shell in defense when threatened. Also like all tortoises and turtles, their mouth is a "beak". The rear legs are very trunk-like, the front legs are almost paddle shaped and "pigeon-toed" with a row of small "nails". They can move very fast on these legs, and maneuver over rocky terrain easily They can also climb and go underwater for up to 10 minutes. Younger animals have a surprising ability to climb, as their toenails provide a very secure grip on wood, concrete, and rough stone surfaces. Small Leopard Tortoises (under 6 inch length) have been observed climbing vertically up and over a 12-inch-high (300 mm) wooden board intended to be an enclosure boundary.
This is the most widely distributed tortoise in Southern Africa. It has a wide distribution in sub-Saharan Africa, but is absent from all of West Africa and most of Central Africa. It has been recorded in Botswana, Burundi, DR Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Leopard tortoises are the fourth largest species of tortoise, after the African spurred tortoise, the Galapagos tortoise, and Aldabra giant tortoise.
Leopard tortoises are increasingly being bred in captivity. This is a positive development, as it should lead to a gradual reduction in demand for animals caught in the wild. In most cases, wild-caught leopard tortoises are not only loaded with ticks, mites and internal parasites, but they are usually very stressed and dehydrated and may not voluntarily eat. Even in the best of circumstances, wild-caught leopard tortoises will run up extensive veterinary bills and much time will be spent rehabilitating them. As of March 22, 2000, the USDA has banned importation of the Leopard Tortoise, Bell's hinge-back tortoise and the African spurred tortoise.
In the wild, healthy populations still exist in rural areas, national parks and nature reserves. However, it is a staple food item in the diets of many local peoples. In areas of significant human populations, the leopard tortoise is considered vulnerable.
Breeding and Reproduction
A very long-lived animal, the leopard tortoise reaches sexual maturity between the ages of 12 and 15 years. Captive leopard tortoises, however, grow faster and may mature as young as 6 years of age.
Leopard tortoises "court" by the male ramming the female. When mating, the male makes grunting vocalizations. After mating, the female lays a clutch consisting of 5 to 18 eggs. The South African leopard tortoise is significantly more difficult to breed in captivity than the common leopard tortoise, S. p. babcocki. Eggs will rarely hatch in an incubator. Most successes have occurred when eggs are left in the ground, and when the climate is similar to the natural one for these tortoises.
- Turtles of the World: Annotated Checklist of Taxonomy and Synonymy, December 2010
- Fritz, U.; Bininda-Emonds, O. R. P. (2007-07-03). "When genes meet nomenclature: Tortoise phylogeny and the shifting generic concepts of Testudo and Geochelone". Zoology (Elsevier) 110 (4): 298–307. doi:10.1016/j.zool.2007.02.003. PMID 17611092.
- Fritz Uwe; Peter Havaš (2007). "Checklist of Chelonians of the World". Vertebrate Zoology 57 (2): 294–295. Archived from the original on 2010-12-17. Retrieved 29 May 2012.
- Branch, Bill (2008). Tortoises, Terrapins & Turtles of Africa. South Africa: Struik Publishers. p. 128. ISBN 1-77007-463-5.
- Kindersley, Dorling (2001,2005). Animal. New York City: DK Publishing. ISBN 0-7894-7764-5.
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