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2:18 AM   April 26, 2015
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Going the Distance for and with Herps


Tommy, the 110-year-old tortoise; the oldest Hermann's Tortoise ever known. Copyright Sheila Floris

Specialist veterinary care for herps is advancing at a rapid rate. In the U.K., the British Chelonia Group (BCG) has been at the forefront of encouraging research in this field, offering an annual award commemorating the memory of the late Dr. Oliphant Jackson. His pioneering work led to the development of what has now become widely known as the Jackson ratio. This is the correlation between length and weight, which serves to determine the body condition of two of the most commonly kept European species of tortoise--the Mediterranean spur-thighed (Testudo graeca) and Hermann’s (T. hermanni). It is now widely used to determine whether these tortoises can be hibernated safely.

The latest recipient of the BCG award is Dr. Sharon Redrobe, BVetMed, DZooMed, the head veterinarian at Bristol Zoo. Her research focused on the use of ultrasound to investigate heart failure in a pet tortoise, and apparently, it is the first time that this investigative technique has been used with these chelonians. Working with such long-lived reptiles, Dr. Redrobe believes that heart failure should be considered more seriously in terms of clinical investigations, with ultrasound also providing a means to monitor the success of any treatment as well.

And speaking of long-lived reptiles…

What could be the U.K.’s oldest resident was discovered living in Coulsdon, close to London, thanks to Practical Reptile Keeping magazine’s on-going search for the country’s most elderly tortoises.

"Tommy was originally obtained from a market in Streatham about 1909, and was thought to be a male,” said her present owner, Sheila Floris. "My mother then bought her from her original owner about 50 years ago. We only discovered later that she was actually a female when she started laying eggs, but we never renamed her! She’s always been very much part of the family, and lived with my mother until she passed away last July, and then she moved in with me”.

This means this venerable veteran is now at least 110 years old, which makes her the oldest Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni) ever known. Just think about the remarkable technological advances that have taken place during her lifetime. Tommy was just a youngster in 1903 when the Wright Brothers undertook the first powered flight in a plane. She was enjoying the summer sun in July 1969 when astronauts walked on the moon for the first time, and was still basking outdoors when the Mars Orbiter was beaming back photos from much further out in the Universe last year. 

There is no doubt that Tommy recognizes Sheila, having grown up with her, and readily puts her head out to have it scratched as well as taking dandelions from her hand.

"She sleeps in my flower bed when the weather is warm, and hides away under a hedge at night, especially when the weather is cold,” Sheila said.

Remarkably, Tommy has always hibernated outside, although as a concession to her advancing years, she now has a cold frame where she can gain some extra warmth on cooler days in spring and fall, with the roof raised.

While Tommy is the oldest-known example of her species every recorded, she still has a few years to go to become the longest-lived tortoise ever known in Britain. Timmy, a female Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca), was believed to have been 160 years old when she died in 2004 at Powderham Castle, Devon, in southwest England.

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