A few characteristics likely come to mind when you think of a tortoise: slow, gentle, and maybe a little dopey.
A. Zora, et al. CURRENT BIOLOGY (2021)
However, as a new study of a tortoise attacking a tern chick proves, you may want to add methodical hunter to that list.
A warning here: This story is not for the faint of heart.
Tortoises are primarily herbivores. Some species do supplement their greens with insects, so chasing prey isn’t entirely unprecedented.
Some tortoises will even munch on bones and carrion they come across in the wild.
Because too much protein can be bad for tortoises, their meat-eating seems to be more of an occasional, opportunistic treat than a major part of their diet.
But in a video shot by Frégate Island deputy conservation manager Anna Zora, a tortoise is seen deliberately hunting, killing, and eating a tern chick.
It was released Monday as part of a study published in Current Biology.
In the video, the tortoise walks slowly toward the tern chick — a type of seabird — cornering it on the edge of a log, before biting its head and later swallowing the bird whole.
Erich Rau / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images
It’s the first time this kind of hunting behavior by a tortoise has been captured on video.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was horrifying and amazing at the same time.”
Co-author Justin Gerlach
According to the research team, the tortoise’s open jaws and retracted tongue are signs of deliberate aggression rather than normal feeding.
Ariel FUCHS/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Frégate Island’s unique ecology may also play a significant role in the story of the tern and the tortoise.
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Conservation efforts have led to high bird and tortoise populations, bringing the animals in closer contact with each other than would be possible in other places.
Martin Harvey/Photodisc/Getty Images
When tern chicks fall out of nests, they instinctually avoid the ground. The tortoise trapping the chick on the log may indicate that it’s not the first tern it’s gobbled up.
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One video doesn’t prove whether this hunting behavior is widespread or newly emerging, but other tortoises have been observed snacking on birds on Frégate Island.
“It’s clear that they enjoy eating terns. Compared to the ease of eating plants, they’re going to quite a lot of trouble.”
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