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First Known Video Of Tortoise Hunting A Bird And Yes, We Have It

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Rachael Funnell

Social Editor and Staff Writer

clockAug 23 2021, 16:41 UTC
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Tortoise

"And I'd do it again," Seychelles tortoise, 2021. Image credit: Hyserb / Shutterstock.com

In Aesop’s fable The Tortoise and the Hare, we learn that complacency is a dangerous thing as “slow and steady wins the race.” However, new video footage has delivered the same message but with a slightly grislier ending. Filmed by researchers in the Seychelles, the video shows a tern chick getting a little too casual around an approaching tortoise. Following in the fabled hare’s footsteps, the chick’s complacency in not fleeing ultimately proves to be their demise as the tortoise – to the surprise of everyone – kills and eats the chick. Yikes.

The rather casual murder has become the focus of a correspondence published in the journal Current Biology in which the researchers who witnessed it theorize that it was probably not the first bird to die at the chomp of a tortoise, and likely won’t be the last.

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In the video, we see an adult female tortoise showing particular interest in a tern chick that’s become stuck on a log. Even at this early stage, the tortoise’s behavior made it apparent that something was about to go down – unfortunately, the tern chick didn’t pick up on this.

“It was looking directly at the tern and walking purposefully toward it. This was very, very strange, and totally different from normal tortoise behavior,” said corresponding author Justin Gerlach, Director of Biology Studies at the University of Cambridge’s Peterhouse College, in a press release.

In the next seven minutes, the tortoise takes its time tracking down the chick and just as it’s in munching distance it opens its mouth and extends its neck. Figuring something is afoot, the chick tries to defend itself by pecking the tortoise but, stuck at the end of the log with nowhere to go, its head ends up very much smushed within the jaws of the bloodthirsty tortoise. Not a sentence I thought I would be writing this week.

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The chick, well and truly dead, slumps to the floor where the tortoise makes quick work of its corpse in swallowing it whole. That’s one way to destroy the evidence, I guess

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” said Gerlach. “It was horrifying and amazing at the same time.”

Tortoises eating remains and meat isn’t unheard of, but until now, Gerlach explains, nobody had really been able to work out if such meals were something the tortoise stumbled across or if they played a part in the victim’s demise. As the video proves, however, they’re more than capable of taking out other, albeit young, animals.

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What’s even more impressive is that the tortoise’s purposeful action appears to indicate it’s not unfamiliar with tracking down defenseless chicks. Terns are tree nesting birds so if they fall out, they’ll do what they can to stay off of the ground. This explains why it remained on the log even as the tortoise closed in and could be why it was targeted in this location if the tortoise has developed a taste for tern. “It looked to me like that individual had hunted successfully before,” said Gerlach. “It seemed to know what it was doing.”


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