Indian / Sri Lankan & Burmese Star Tortoises
Personality, behavior & intelligence
Geochelone elegans. Photo courtesy of Philip Chan.
Some people have described the Indian Star tortoise (Geochelone elegans) as having the personality of a rock. Pretty rocks, they say. Auch! Of course, I don't agree with that. :O)
Indian / Sri Lankan Star tortoises may not be the most outgoing and fearless tortoises, but generally they are charming, sweet and peaceful. Usually, they can be kept in small, mixed-sex groups. They do not pick up severe fights with each other or engage in overly aggressive mating rituals. Each tortoise is an individual though. Some are more belligerent than others. Yes, even Stars can bully each other!
Ease of care
In captivity, Burmese Star tortoises (Geochelone platynota) are said to be hardier, easier to breed, and more cold tolerant than Indian / Sri Lankan Star tortoises (Geochelone elegans). Further, Sri Lankans are said to be hardier than Indian Stars (aka mainland Stars).
Behavior & personality
My Burmese and Sri Lankan Star tortoises' behavior and habits seem to be very much the same. They all like same foods, and they are all active during same times of day. All my Stars have adjusted to my routine handling of them, for example, bathing and moving them between indoor and outdoor pens.
If my Burmese and Sri Lankan Star tortoises get alarmed about something in their surroundings, they pull in their heads and freeze, or just freeze, until they are sure the danger has passed. My Sri Lankans are very quick to pull in their heads and limbs. My Burmese often just freeze without hiding their heads when they detect a possible danger (usually a moving person nearby).
My Burmese and Sri Lankan tortoises are busy wandering and eating mornings and afternoons, and the rest of the day they are often hiding or sleeping. When the Stars are not eating or basking, they all like to hide under plants or in their hide boxes. None of them are diggers or burrowers, and they aren't climbers either. None of my adult Stars try to climb their indoor or outdoor enclosure walls or attempt to escape. They seem to be content where they are.
Caution! Little babies seem to like to burrow and climb more than adults. In fact, the teeny-weeny ones can be quite agile mountain climbers. Do not put any plants or cage furniture too close to the enclosure walls. They could be used as a "staircase" over the wall. For a couple examples, see the outdoor housing page.
During the spring, summer, and fall my Star tortoises spend days in their outside enclosures. Outdoors, all my Stars have their favorite hiding places. They do not dig into the dirt, except maybe scrape the surface of the soil a bit when hiding under a bush.
They all drink from their indoor and outdoor water bowls occasionally, but none of them "soak" themselves even if provided with large enough bowls. However, they do seem to enjoy the warm soaks I give them. Because my young adults and adults live mostly on a dry substrate when indoors, I bathe them every 1-3 days depending on their age. During the winter months when they live indoors and spend a fair amount of time under hot basking lights, I also mist them and their enclosures on and off with warm water.
Among my young Burmese and Sri Lankan Stars, it's hard to say if one species is more "outgoing" than the other. Often, it seems that my Burmese Stars are more active, but sometimes it looks like my Sri Lankans are. As adults, my Burmese Stars seem to be more energetic. My Sri Lankans are very low key. They just rest in hiding or go about their day very leisurely. No hurries.
Still, I do see personality differences among individual Star tortoises. Some are just braver and more lively than others, regardless of their species (Burmese or Sri). Also, males can be more active than females.
My shyest Star tortoise is a Sri Lankan, and she's very timid. She will retreat into her shell at the smallest commotion around her. When she realizes it's me holding her, she will push her head out a bit to see what's going on.
My bravest and most trusting Star tortoise is an adult male Burmese Star. He can be quite active, especially outside. He likes to dash around in his outdoor pen checking different places and the available plant buffet, but will stop on his tracks and freeze when there is sudden movement in his visual field.
When I go outside, he often comes running to me. I don't know if he's expecting food (typically ignored when given though) or being dominant and trying to chase me away from his domain. Or maybe he just wants a head rub. :O)
He will stretch his neck and stick his head way out when I'm holding him. He seems to know good things come from being carried (I always use the same routines). A nice warm bath, good food after a bath, or a sunny day outside. :O)
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Are tortoises smarter & more social than we think?
Ask a few tortoise keepers about tortoise intelligence, and you will get answers and observations about their tortoises' cleverness and social-like behavior. Are these tortoise owners blinded by their attachment to their pets and giving them human-like attributes, or are tortoises really smarter and more social than previously believed?
The learning abilities or reptiles have not been studied much, until now. University of Vienna's Department of Cognitive Biology (Department für Kognitionsbiologie Universität Wien, COGBIO) consists of several research groups and labs, including the new Cold-blooded Cognition Lab. Researchers at this lab are interested in all aspects of reptile cognition.
Projects include research in spatial perception, gaze following, social learning, visual perception and categorization. Most of the lab's work is done on Redfoot tortoises which are less timid than Indian Star tortoises.
Tortoises are often described as asocial or unsociable animals. In other words, tortoises are said to avoid the interaction, other than mating, with others. It's believed by many that they do not enjoy or need the company of other tortoises.
As a solitary species, they are not expected to learn from simply observing other tortoises. However, in the detour test, all observer tortoises reached their goal while none of the non-observers did. The detour test provided the first evidence of social learning in a solitary species!
Gaze following is believed to be a result of social living. Again, as solitary animals, tortoises are not expected to have this ability. Yet, the test findings showed that it is present in Redfoot tortoises!
- Biology Letters - Social learning in a non-social reptile (Geochelone carbonaria); by Anna Wilkinson, Karin Kuenstner, Julia Mueller, Ludwig Huber
- COGBIO - Department of Cognitive Biology, University of Vienna, Austria; read more about these and other interesting studies on Redfoots
- Science Blog - Additional discussion on the above experiments, by Jason Goldman, USA
- Paignton Zoo - Giant tortoises from the Seychelles are trained using positive reinforcement techniques; When the tortoise performs the behavior the keeper wants, they reinforce the behavior with the sound of a clicker and a treat; UK, Dec 2010 [Note: The original URL has disappeared, but here's the story - Charity Vault]