The image of a brave and slow tortoise is dealt a heavy blow. Researchers in the African Seychelles have been able to record how a giant turtle catches a baby bird and then eats it. “It’s surprising and somewhat frightening,” says British ecologist Justin Gerlach.
A video filmed on Fregate Island in July 2020 shows a female giant tortoise slowly but surely chasing a baby bird. Moments later, she made a fatal motion with her head and set her jaw around the bird’s head.
It is the first time that scientists have been able to capture such an “aggressive” action in front of a camera. “This is a completely unexpected behavior that has never been seen in land turtles,” said island ecologist Justin Gerlach of the University of Cambridge. “The turtle deliberately chases this bird, kills it, and then eats it.”
Previously, giant turtles were believed to be strict herbivores, so they only ate plants. “No one would have thought that the species would also eat meat, so why would they? Turtles don’t hunt,” it seems.
Scientists suspect that the giant tortoise’s hunting behavior was caused by the tree-nesting tern colony. The tern is a seabird that has returned in large numbers since its natural habitat was restored on the island. Even chicks that fell from their nests were scattered on the ground.
“So these hunting cases may have happened a lot in the past. It might be a normal behavior that people haven’t seen for hundreds of years,” says Gerlach. “Although it takes animals to hunt something much more than just eating a plant.”
Frigate Island is home to about 3,000 giant tortoises.
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