For the first time ever, a rare spider tortoise native to Madagascar hatched at Smithsonian’s National Zoo. The spider tortoise, named after the pattern on the back of their shells that resemble golden-colored spider webs, are endangered. The tortoise hatched at the zoo’s Reptile Discovery Center, in Washington, D.C., on May 10. If the spider tortoise continues doing well, the zoo will exhibit it sometime this summer.
The parents of the tortoise came to the zoo in January 2014. The egg that the newly-hatched spider tortoise emerged from was laid in September, 2014. It was one of three eggs laid by the tortoise’s mother. The first egg, which was laid last August, did not hatch. The third egg, which the tortoise laid in October, has not had enough time yet for it to hatch.
A spokesperson at the zoo, said that since 1970, the native populations of the spider tortoise have been reduced by eighty percent. The reduction in the populations of the spider tortoise is, in large part, due to their being a favorite meal of the Madagascan tribe known as the Mikea. The Mikea, themselves, only number approximately 2,000. According to an article from 2012 by BBC News, the Mikea tribe were fairly recently considered to be “so elusive that the Malagasy public believed it to be a fantasy akin to fairies or leprechauns.”
The Mikea cook the spider tortoises by simply burying them in heated sand. Twenty minutes later, they are cooked, and the Mikea eat the animals. The shells of the tortoises make for bowls for the nomadic forest tribe to eat the animals from. The tortoises do not get very large, so they do not make for a very big meal, unless several of them are consumed; but, they do help in making up the diet of the Mikea.
The BBC article about the spider tortoises mentioned that a relatively “significant” population of a northern subspecies had been discovered, but that subspecies is also being preyed upon by the Mikea, despite warnings to them by the president of a local village that anyone caught capturing the tortoises and eating them will get “beaten up.”
The residents of the village do not eat the tortoises, as it is a taboo or “fady” for them to consume the animals. They believe that eating them could cause them to die, or at least might anger their ancestors.
The threat of getting beaten up does not appear to be deterring the hunter gathering tribe the Mikea. They rely on whatever animals that they can find to survive, including lemurs. They also sustain themselves by eating “fruit and wild honey.”
Another way that the Mikea tribe is contributing to the dwindling populations of the spider tortoises is through habitat loss. The Mikea have been cutting down some of the trees in the regions where the tortoises live to use as fuel for fires.
Ancestors of the Mikea were instrumental in wiping out two of the island’s species of giant tortoise. Three other tortoise species in Madagascar are listed as being Critically Endangered, the ploughshare tortoise, the radiated tortoise and the flat tailed tortoise.
The Mikea do not pose the only threat to the endangered tortoises. Though international trade in them was banned in 2004, armed poachers still collect them up to sell in Southeast Asia as exotic pets. Even a few army officials in Madagascar have been arrested trying to smuggle the tortoises out in suitcases aboard military planes.
The news of a rare spider tortoise hatching at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo is a small bit of bright light in the continued efforts to preserve these endangered animals. Hopefully, the efforts of the zoo and others who are working to prevent the animals from becoming extinct will pay off, but the odds are stacked against these rare animals.
Written By Douglas Cobb
Washington Post: Rare spider tortoise hatches
at the National Zoo in DC
WJLA: Critically endangered spider tortoise
hatches at Smithsonian’s National Zoo
Fredericksburg.com: Rare spider tortoise hatches
at D.C.’s National Zoo
BBC News: Last stand of the Madagascan spider tortoise
Photo Courtesy of David Elis’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License