Down where I live, the tortoise commonly found in ponds and minor tanks is not, as I discovered recently to my surprise, a tortoise at all. The volume on Cheloni of the Fauna informs me, authoritatively, that it is a turtle, the Pond Turtle, to be precise. I know this creature well, though for years I had mistaken its identity, a broad, flat turtle with a smooth, unsegmented skin over its carapace, the greenish- grey nondescript colour of stagnant ponds, looking like nothing so much as a split half of coconut floating on the water, but sinking instantly to the bottom at the least stir of the watcher with an apprehensive wariness of which coconuts are quite incapable.
However, I am not writing of it.
I am writing of the authentic Pond Tortoise less common but by no means rare in the South; in fact, it was in the course of the specific verification of its identity that I learned what I did about the Pond Turtle. One day last month fate brought a well- developed tortoise to me, with flattened, strongly- clawed limbs, a horny shell strongly patterned in shields, and soft, lustrous eyes, its carapace had three parallel ridges longitudinally, and by these tokens, and the help of the good book, I was able to establish its identity definitely as Geoemyda Trijuga ( forma typica ).
No feat of identification, but it was just as well that it had such flagrant external characteristics, and that the varieties of tortoise inhabiting ponds in our country are limited in number.
The taxonomy of tortoises goes very much by the structure of their skull, and the flattened bony plates that lie beneath the externally visible shell, so that it is by a study of its skeleton that one can usually be certain of a given specimen. The Fauna also told me, in an aside, that the obviously amphibious tortoise before me was a vegetarian and belonged to a widelydistributed genus.
However, even before I had satisfied myself fully of the identity of my captive by inspecting its shell, and its head and limbs and tidy little tail when these were on view, I lost interest in its exact name. What intrigued me about it was something very different. I had placed it flat on its back, the better to look at its plastron, when my scrutiny was interrupted by a summons. And when I returned a minute later, there was no tortoise to be seen! I felt surprised. Somewhere, I had read that if you leave a Chelonian flat on its back, it could not right itself — to be fair to that unremembered author, I must add that it was of the huge marine turtles that he had written that. But I had taken the pains to leave my tortoise perfectly flat on its three keels on the doormat, and was taken aback at its quick
resumption of its legs and its getaway.
I searched my den and found a defunct, yellow two- anna bit in a dark corner, but no fugitive tortoise. It was finally discovered, after a futile hunt around the garden, in a nearby gutter.
Then I put it on its back again, retreated behind the cover of my table, and watched developments.
The way it righted itself was interesting. Encased in a rigid shell and evenly balanced on its back, it cannot tilt itself to one side by rolling over nor can it touch the ground on either side with its protruded limbs.
But it can and does put out it head, reach down on its extensile neck and establish contact with the floor with the top of its nose — then it pushes quickly to one side, extending the limbs on the side on which it is seeking to lean over and rights itself with a tumble. First the head comes out, the wary eyes take stock and if one is around, back goes the head into the shell. But if the coast seems clear, the limbs to one side are pushed out and then, with a movement incredibly swift for a tortoise and so fast that the eye cannot follow it clearly, the manoeuvre is completed by the downward push of the head.
Incidentally, the tail comes out the moment the hind legs are pushed out ( both the hind legs do come out though it is only one that is extended laterally and goes back into retreat with them — it seems not to be independently controlled, though I may be mistaken on this point. The effort of righting itself is obviously a strain on the animal and though I observed it twice and took some highspeed flash photos of the critical moment, I took care to give the tortoise plenty of rest in between.
This tortoise is amphibious and swims with ease, though less expertly than the Pond Turtle. It is quite at home on terra firma and can clamber over doorsills and minor obstacles in its path, using the clawed limbs — but it cannot climb. It seems totally guided by powerful apprehensive instincts but, as several authorities on the Chelonia have pointed out, we cannot judge a tortoise&’s intelligence by our own standards — which, I may add, are frequently higher.
Geoemyda is a living paradox. It is so perfectly equipped for a life of retreat, its head goes so safely into the sanctuary of its shell on its retractile neck, the limbs are withdrawn and tucked inwards, towards the middle of the body, out of harm&’s way and the little tail clamps so firmly to one side, inside the notched opening at the back of the shell. Only the hard protective shell is on view, and the soft, vulnerable tortoise within takes no harm even if the shell is turned right over by an enemy. Wherever it goes, this slow- moving hermit takes its cave with it, withdrawing instantly into the refuge at the least hint of danger. One would expect such a slow, well- fortified creature to lead a life of sedentary calm, sticking to its pond until forced by circumstance to seek the next pond. But Geoemyda is a born explorer and travels far from its safe sanctuary. DH Lawrence had a truer insight into the Chelonian mind than the taxonomists — “ Little Ulysses” describes these wandering hermits so perfectly.
This was first published on 1 March 1959 in The Sunday Statesman