Pittsburgh zoo gets first Galapagos tortoises

PITTSBURGH – 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.

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.