Tick Tock, the clock is ticking: What will the Karoo dwarf tortoises do? Will they spend their time wisely?

Timing is everything in today’s society. As we go through our lives, we are required to make a number of decisions on how we are going to spend it. We wake up in the morning, make breakfast, get dressed, brush our teeth, then we’re out the door and off to class. Throughout our days at Mt. A, we allot periods of time creating schedules in order to keep ourselves organized, arrive at all of our classes on time, and  keep ourselves productive. We constantly weigh the pros and cons of our daily options and make choices that we feel will benefit us in the long run. Should we go for a walk on a nice day, or stay in and work on endless assignments? Hang out with our friends, or stay at home with our family?

Balancing our time is a key aspect of our daily lives. This can also be seen in other species. In ecology, this is described as time budgets;we understand it as the time an animal spends exhibiting certain behaviors. “Time budgets are important behavior analyses for ecological documentation and categorization”, says Hannah Quilty, a veterinary student at the University of PEI Atlantic Veterinary College.

Recent research led by Dr. Victor Loehr and his colleagues examined the time budgets of Karoo dwarf tortoises to determine the factors which lead them to make decisions on how they spend their time. This information is important as these tortoises are facing population decline and extinction. “Tortoises are one of the most imperiled groups of animals,” says Dr. James Baxter-Gilbert, a Mt. A reptile expert, adding that “they are of global conservation concern.” One possible threat to their survival could be changes in their environment that are causing them to alter their time budgets, which may restrict them from some important activities such as basking and feeding.

But how can we determine what a tortoise does in a day if we cannot ask them? Well, the first task is to find them, which, for this species, can prove to be quite difficult. They are typically found in vast arid regions of western South Africa.  While a perfect habitat for tortoises, this region proves to result in long, hot days for researchers. Loehr and his team began observing the tortoises over the span of an entire year. This was used to determine how seasonal changes would affect how they spend their time The researchers found that these amazing animals are much less active than they originally expected, even when the conditions were favorable. The tortoises remained safely within their rock crevices for much of the observation period, only leaving when it was absolutely necessary. Even when the temperature was perfect for sunbathing and resources such as food were at peak volumes, they remained in the comfort of their homes. 

Loehr and his team wanted to know why. What were the pros and cons of spending their time homebound? They determined that these tortoises were likely homebodies due to predation risks. The risk of becoming prey is much higher outside than when they remained in their dwellings, much like the fear people have about walking home alone late at night. When the tortoises had to leave home, they wasted no time completing their task and heading straight back to their dwelling.

This discovery suggests that these tortoises spend their time wisely, but it also explains the

difficulty researchers have surveying these animals. This lack of observability may play a role in the difficulty of conserving them. Research like that of Loehr and his team provides insight to a conservation biologist on how and when to count these animals. It is not as simple as one, two, or three; you might need to start looking under rocks and in burrows first.

Just as we need to organize our days to accomplish everything we need to do, so do these tortoises. They are facing some tough circumstances in their environment, including high levels of predation and decreasing populations. These factors change how they organize their days. Time is constantly ticking by, so all we can do is make the best of it.

For more information on these fascinating creatures, check out: High-Level Inactivity Despite Favorable Environmental Conditions in the Rock-Dwelling Dwarf Tortoise Chersobius boulengeri by Loehr et al. (2021) https://doi.org/10.1655/Herpetologica-D-20-00043.1 

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