Friday, May 25, 2012

The Radiated Tortoise

The radiated tortoise is too beautiful and, it's said, too delicious for its own good. Along with the resulting poaching for pets and for the upscale restaurant market, the rapid destruction of its forest habitat in south Madagascar points to a fast path toward extinction. Now it's one of the most critically endangered of turtle species.This short movie (URL below) tells the story of returning a cargo of confiscated radiated tortoises to their homeland and the education efforts in its region to return the tortoise to its traditionally protected status by the local population. It's nine minutes well spent.   

Friday, March 30, 2012

Ancient Alien Friend

Here's another adaptation from Diode's Experiment: A Box Turtle Investigates the Human World, a work in progress. Enjoy!
Milwaukee River, detail.
C. Douglas Babcock; my collection

On the river--hard on the river--I could see the painted turtle's beak pushing so hard on the glass I was glad we'd had the watercolor framed. His pointer beak pressed on the far shore of the riverscape my father-in-law had painted from the bridge down the street. Curious, I thought, but then this wild turtle pushed a foot against my hand, pivoting, and I followed his canoeing to the porch window, which looked over the bluff toward the water, still visible through the leafless trees of the year's early spring. He looked down at the real river, then angled upstream a bit, and banged his beak on the window. Now I knew exactly what he meant.
     The night before, in the midst of a wretched week of tornadoes and worry and exhausting hours of searching, Michael and I, on the way home for sustenance, had seen our screen door angled out. Trudging steps began to fly, and we ran the last leg home. As we approached we saw a boot box, and it seemed to be scratching. We tore off the string and the box top, then, seeing what was not there, broke off in silence.
     The full-grown midland painted turtle, Chrysemys picta marginata, filled the space. We knew why he was there. We had posted fliers high and low picturing a flat tortoise: lost, heartwrenchingly lost. On a supervised walk in the wilds of an unkempt park between a railroad track and the raging Milwaukee River, she had, as John Updike put it, melted into grass: Willow, a rare African pancake tortoise, part of the family and part of our mutual explorations into symbolic communication. We were desperate to find her.
     I suppose it wasn't surprising that some of the turtles purporting to be the pancake-slender Willow were water turtles. Their aquatic lifestyle has made them flatter than the typical arch of terrestrial species. True, "flat" was the defining characteristic we sought, but not a hydrodynamically sleek--but only rather flat--swimmer.
     A note in the turtle's box expressed the hope that the turtle was Willow and asked that, if it was not, we return it to the given location. I didn't recognize the west-side address, and we decided to return him to his neighborhood the next day.
     When I lifted him from the shoebox, he pulled inside his shield of a shell, ornately decorated with the red marks around the edges that give the species its name; but I held him patiently, and, as usual with turtles, curiosity won. He poked his head out surreptitiously, looking at the unfamiliar surroundings of a house. Gaining more confidence, he extended his limbs and started to struggle for freedom, but I responded by turning in the direction of his struggling and walking that way. Within seconds he relaxed and simply pushed on my hands in the way the other turtles of the study group steered us to show their needs and interests.
     Michael stood in a doorway holding two of our turtles, who, seeing the uninvited stranger in my hands looking at them, stared back with no hint of a friendly overture. The painted turtle turned away, rubbernecking like any tourist to examine details all over the house, marking the human strangeness of the way we lived: the enclosing squareness of it, the calm aerial turtles, the oddity of television.
     It was the next morning when the turtle discovered the painting and tapped the window facing the river. This time I looked more carefully at the address on the note and looked it up on a map. It was where the turtle had pointed.
     We drove over the bridge to the address, a block or so from the river, and parked on the quiet lane. I was holding the turtle, and he steered down the lane under the Gothic arches of the elms in the direction of the river, his back legs alternating strokes against my hands, so he swayed back and forth as I walked.
     Michael, still exhausted, lagged behind, and from time to time the turtle would pivot me around and stop, looking at Michael for a moment before resuming his journey toward the river.

A midland painted turtle. James H. Harding in
 CalPhotos; under Creative Commons license
      At the flat bank by the edge of the water I stopped while the turtle, now motionless, surveyed the river and Michael caught up. I leaned down and set the turtle gently on the mud. He waited there a moment before swimming off in slow, relaxed strokes, his carapace and head still visible. From time to time he hesitated and pulled his head around to look back at us. Finally, he dipped under and disappeared.
     It seemed as if we had met and befriended another member of an alien order just arrived on Earth, just as he had learned to trust us members of our soft and gangly species. But, of course, we were the new kids on the planet, not the turtles.
     Different as we were, we were learning to understand each other. But we couldn't interpret his slow return to the river and his ambiguous hesitations precisely enough to know what he was thinking. Was he thanking us for an adventurous vacation with our species, alien to him--and returning him to his home? Was he amazed that his gestures had told us his place on the river? Or did he want to stay in our world? I'll never know.

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Prize Story Live in Portland

Here, below, see the promised details on a reading of  "Diode," a new and improved adaptation of Part I of the book-in-progress, Diode's Experiment: A Box Turtle Investigates the Human World. We were delighted that the story won the 2011 first prize in the Kay Snow Award nonfiction division. (The response of the judges' table at the award ceremony was a unison yell of "DIODE!" Hilarious.)

I'll be reading on Wednesday, February 1, 2012, seven o' clock, at the Blackbird Wine Shop, 4323 NE Fremont Street, Portland, OR 97213, (503) 282-1887, along with wonderful writers Sue Parman, Fred Melden, and Sharon Davis Appleman. The program is a mix of stories and poetry, plus the deliciousness of deli plates and glasses of wine to buy for accompaniment. The First Wednesday series, short of those options, is free.

And here is another shot of Diode herself, still with me after forty years, staring at me with her why-are-you-confronting-me-with-that-camera-again expression. She has climbed up on a shelter in the turtles' favorite spot (the favorite, that is, except for summertime afternoons outside): the lab's six-foot garden window, which looks out at the backyard and rear deck. I had an acrylic barrier made for the room side of the space, so, if you're wondering, it's safe.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Lost and Found: Hope for Lonesome George and Other 'Extinct' Species?

Does the doom and gloom of our rapid-fire extinction of Earth’s species sometimes get to you? It does to me, and it hits especially hard to see turtles as the group hit hardest by threats of continued extinctions: forty to fifty percent of the 300 or so species with a high level of threat.  (See, in this blog, “The Year of the Turtle and World Turtle Day,” May 24, 2011.) Yes, we have lost and nearly lost many species, primarily to human predation, habitat loss, and wild collection. Sometimes we take it as a call to action; other times all we want to do is to cover our eyes and ears like the “I see no evil”/“I hear no evil” monkeys.

But there are times when a ray of sunshine shines through the depressive statistics, at least on the small scale: the survival or possible survival of individuals of species once thought lost. Think of the excitement surrounding the ivory-billed woodpecker and the great search for survivors. Better, where there is one or even possibly one, perhaps there are others.

Now we know that Lonesome George, the famous Galapagos tortoise thought otherwise extinct, has relatives on another island bearing some of his species’ genes, opening new possibilities of finding a mate for him—perhaps in captive populations, perhaps on his relatives’ island; and who knows in these early days of genetic manipulation what can eventually be done. Certainly that would be a use of the developing technology that everyone could embrace.

C. Elephantopus Hybrid tortoise with
One of the hybrid Galapagos tortoises found on Isabela
Island, a hope for bringing back a species thought extinct.

Recently a paper came out in Current Biology saying that one of the other Galapagos tortoise species, Geochelonoidis elephantopus of Floreana Island, thought extinct, also has relatives, but on Isabela Island, two hundred miles away from their one-time home. From genetic analysis, it looks as if hybridization has been happening for the two hundred or so years since ships started to deposit tortoises from one island onto another. What is most hopeful is that 30 of the 84 hybrids found so far are not more than fifteen years old: young enough that purebred parents are “likely” to be found. Ryan Garrick and his coauthors say that if they are found, they “could constitute core founders of a captive breeding program directed toward resurrecting this species.”

Even if purebred G. elephantopus parents are not found, like Lonesome George, even close relatives may provide possibilities of recovery down the line. As Ryan Garrick and his coauthors conclude, the legacy of hybridization “may occasionally be the creation of opportunities to resuscitate imperiled species.”

Jennifer Welsh, as “‛Extinct’ Galapagos Tortoise Reappears” and “No Longer Extinct? Traces of Giant Tortoises Found.” January 9, 2012.; also, under the second title, at

 For Garrick et al. and other relevant original papers, including the one on Lonesome George, see:

and M.A. Russello et al., “DNA from the past informs ex situ conservation for the future: an ‘extinct’ species of Gal├ípagos tortoise identified in captivity.” PLoS One. 2010 Jan 13;5(1):e8683.

Also see the following fine books:

Paul Chambers. A Sheltered Life: The Unexpected History of the Giant Tortoise. London: John Murray, 2004.

Henry Nicholls, Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon. Basingstoke Hampshire, UK and New York: Palgrave Macmillan/Macmillan, 2006; and, as a paperback, Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of the World’s Most Famous Tortoise. London: Pan Macmillan, 2007.

Craig B. Stanford, The Last Tortoise: A Tale of Extinction in Our Lifetime. Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010.