Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium welcomes its first-ever visit by Galapagos tortoises

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Melinda Boling's second-grade class at Burgettstown Elementary is wrapping up a unit on animals -- complete with a book about a tortoise who helped a hippo learn to eat. On Thursday, Ms. Boling's students oohed and aahed over two live tortoises, in a new exhibit at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.

"They're awesome, and so big," said Garrett Yazevac, 8, of the two Galapagos tortoises on loan from an Allenwood, Pa., zoo. The tortoises will call Pittsburgh home through Labor Day.

His classmate Charlotte Mongole said she wanted to touch one, to feel the hard shell on the 160-pound reptile. At the spry age of 22, the tortoises are already massive. But with a life expectancy of 100 years, they could grow as large as 5 or 6 feet in length and as heavy as 500 pounds.

Zoo introduces a pair of Galapagos tortoises

The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium today introduced its newest residents -- a pair of 20-year-old Gal??pagos tortoises. These creatures often reach 100 years in age. (Video by Nate Guidry; 5/22/2014)

The exhibit is a coup for Pittsburgh not only because it showcases the zoo's first Galapagos tortoises but also because the species is endangered, with only 22,000 left in the wild, said the zoo's curator of mammals, Ken Kaemmerer.

"They're neat animals," Mr. Kaemmerer said. "They actually move around quite a bit, though it always seems like a massive effort. They can survive without food or water for a year and a half because reptile metabolism is so slow."

The tortoise diet is diverse. In addition to hay and tortoise chow, the reptiles munch on grass and feast on fruits, including bananas and watermelon.

On Thursday morning, they lay in mud puddles, with bunches of leaves and grass fixed in their beaks.

The tortoises, one male and one female, are still unnamed, Mr. Kaemmerer said, though the zoo is open to suggestions: "If somebody wants to give us names, sure."

Zoo-goers jumped at the opportunity.

Zhona Johnson, 7, suggested "Mila" for the female and "Plank" for the male. Plank because of the hard, flat appearance of the tortoise shell. Made of bone and attached to the rib cage, the shell is the largest part of the reptile's body. Despite popular belief, it is not solid but rather knitted together by air-filled, honeycomb-like chambers, the zoo said.

Jake Fugett, 20, would call them "Franklin" and "Bastoise."

"They're cute, with their little necks sticking out," Mr. Fugett said. "Just chilling there with grass in their mouths."

When the animals get scared, they retract their necks inside their shell, Austin Horner, 9, said, offering his own zoological explanation during his first-ever visit to the zoo.

Mr. Kaemmerer said the zoo has a handful of new exhibits up its sleeve, including a Komodo dragon set to appear next week and a cheetah exhibit later in the summer.

The zoo is in the initial stages of a five-year project that will bring a slew of new attractions to the grounds, he said.

Isaac Stanley-Becker: istanley-becker@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3775.

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