Cambridge boffins are planning to send an expedition to the Seychelles after a viral video revealed the existence of killer tortoises hunting and eating living prey.
The footage, which was shot in the Seychelles, made headlines as it shows a supposedly herbivorous tortoise patiently hunting down a small bird and eating it, in behaviour that had never been caught on camera before.
In the video, the tortoise can be seen slowly inching towards the small bird, occasionally lunging at it and snapping at it, before finally grabbing it in its jaws and killing it by chomping down on its head.
In the wake of the video, the experts have been flooded with people claiming to have observed similar incidents involving other tortoises in other locations that will also now be investigated by the experts.
Newsflash spoke to expert biologist Dr Justin Gerlach from the University of Cambridge, and the person who filmed the tortoise eating the bird, Anna Zora, a Conservation Officer on Fregate Island in the Seychelles and the Vice Chairperson for the Fregate Island Foundation.
Dr Gerlach said he was planning to send a team to observe the species to find out more, and Zora said: “The behaviour of actively hunting was observed and documented for the first time. We saw many times tortoises eating dead birds and lizards.
“Tortoises are scavengers so they eat whatever they find on the forest floor, but this specific tortoise was actively hunting, it didn’t happen to find the bird, it went and stalked it, got it and ate it.”
Dr Gerlach said: “This is the first time that a definite deliberate hunt and kill has been documented.” He added: “There have been reports of tortoises of different species killing a bird and then eating it but it’s never been clear whether that was deliberate or just an accident (stepping on the bird for example).
“It saw the bird from a distance and went directly at it, so it was not provoked and it looks clear to me that it is a deliberate attack with the intention of killing and eating it. Whether it was hungry or simply fancied bird is an unanswerable question. I don’t think it was particularly hungry as there was loads of food around.”
Speaking about how she recorded the incident in 2020, Zora said: “I decided to record the scene because the way the tortoise was behaving captured my attention, I went through my mind trying to recall if I had read anything about this kind of behaviour and then I realized that I had never heard of it I decided to record it.”
Discussing whether or not the tortoise, believed to be about 40 years old, was hungry, or annoyed by the bird, or if it acted for some other reason, Zora said: “On Fregate Island we have more than 3,000 Aldabra Giant tortoises, the tortoises have plenty of food on the island and they are very happy, I don’t think it was starving. I think it found another way to get the protein intake.”
Correcting a common misconception, Zora said: “Tortoises are not herbivores, they are scavengers, meaning they eat anything they find, including meat.”
Dr Gerlach said: “The observation was luck – being in the right place at the right time (and Anna Zora having the presence of mind to start filming it). The next step is going to be to study it and find out how often it does happen. We know it is more than one tortoise doing it, and it looks like the one filmed knew what it was doing (i.e. had done it before), but how many do it, how often, how important is meat to them? Those we just don’t know at the moment.”
He added: “I am planning to start sending some of my students to Fregate island to study what is going on, to watch the tortoises and find out the answers to the questions above.
“I’m also collecting information on other species of tortoise; the video going viral has resulted in quite a lot of stories of tortoises eating other animals. None quite like this deliberate hunt, but all interesting.”
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