Toledo Zoo welcomes a Galapagos tortoise

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TOLEDO, Ohio — Toledo’‍s newest exotic resident weighs 440 pounds, is old enough to be considered a living antique, and hails from a volcanic Pacific archipelago near the equator revered for its unique and diverse ecosystems.

Emerson, a dome-shelled Galapagos tortoise estimated to be about 100 years old, arrived Wednesday evening at the Toledo Zoo from the San Diego Zoo, escorted by Toledo Zoo personnel on his FedEx flight to Detroit before being driven to Toledo and uncrated inside a heated shed, dubbed the “tortabode,” for the night.

“He is a spectacular animal,” said R. Andrew Odum, curator of herpetology at the zoo. “He’s a very majestic, statesman tortoise.”

Emerson emerged from his wooden transport crate with no hesitation and explored his new surroundings. Handlers rewarded him with carrot and sweet potato treats and a neck rub.

Later this year, the zoo also will receive three 2-year-old Galapagos tortoises from the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas. The trio will be kept in the zoo’‍s hospital for a 60-day quarantine, but because of their much smaller size, they will not be housed with Emerson until they grow a bit.

Jeff Sailer, executive director of the zoo, said visitors will be able to compare the hulking, centenarian Emerson to the young tortoises, which now can be picked up with one hand. Families will watch the youngsters grow up and share that experience with several generations.

“The little ones could be here for 150 years or more,” Mr. Sailer said.

No one knows the average lifespan of a Galapagos tortoise because they live so long. Tracking the animals with known hatching dates takes several generations of humans, but experts estimate the giant reptiles may live anywhere from 150 to 200 years.

Emerson is the zoo’‍s first Galapagos tortoise since 1983 when his predecessor, Galopy, was sent to San Diego by former Toledo Zoo director William Dennler at the recommendation of the Galapagos Tortoise Species Survival Plan. Galopy was also a wild-born tortoise and was the much-beloved face of the Toledo Zoo for 32 years.

Galopy was tortoise No. 29 in San Diego. Emerson was No. 30, having arrived there the same year. The two were housed together with other members of the San Diego tortoise herd.

“This tortoise knew Galopy, and knew him well,” Mr. Odum said. “So that’‍s pretty neat.”

Records from the San Diego Zoo indicate Galopy had been undergoing repeated diagnostic testing and treatment for extreme generalized edema. He died in the San Diego zoo’‍s hospital in March 1995, at an estimated age of about 75.

Galapagos tortoises, an endangered species, are one of the foremost examples of the impact of human activity on the natural world and are a common symbol of the need for conservation. They can live for months without food or water, and their populations were decimated in the 1800s when whalers rounded them up to store aboard ships as a reliable source of fresh meat. Now, predation and habitat destruction from invasive species are the primary concern.

Emerson was born in the wild on the Galapagos Islands — a part of Ecuador 575 miles off the coast of that South American nation — before being brought to the United States, so his age and history are only a best guess. Conflicting genetic tests to determine his subspecies indicate he is either a natural hybrid of tortoises from the Wolf and Alcedo volcanoes on Isabela Island or is from Santiago Island.

“He is unique genetically,” Mr. Odum said. “There is nothing in the United States similar.”

The three youngsters will be of the subspecies from Darwin Volcano on Isabela Island.

Before being loaned to San Diego in 1983, Emerson was at the St. Louis Zoo. In a quasi three-way agreement, the St. Louis Zoo formally donated Emerson to the San Diego Zoo last month, so he could then be donated from San Diego to the Toledo Zoo.

A spokesman with the St. Louis Zoo said records show the tortoise arrived there on New Year‘‍s Eve, 1959, but there are no records that say exactly where Emerson came from other than having been acquired through a “private source.”

Mr. Odum said that given Emerson’‍s age and characteristics, he could be one of 180 tortoises brought to the states from Isabela Island in 1928 by Charles H. Townsend. The New York Zoological Society naturalist and director of the New York Aquarium was one of the first to notice the plight of Galapagos tortoises after examining logbooks from whaling ships and realizing how many had been taken. He led an expedition to the archipelago in an attempt to preserve them.

It is expected the doors to Emerson’‍s shed will be opened today and he will be allowed to take his first steps outdoors in his new home.

The weather will dictate how long Emerson will be on exhibit each year. Tortoises can be outside in cooler temperatures as long as there is strong sunshine they can absorb to warm themselves, but overcast and wet days require warmer air temperatures.

In the winter, Emerson will be moved into an extra-large shed with heated floors. Mr. Sailer said Emerson will have a temporary partial-year exhibit for three to five years until a permanent, year-round home for the Galapagos tortoises can be built.

The Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. Alexandra Mester is a reporter at The Blade:, 419-724-6066, or on Twitter @AlexMesterBlade.

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