Sometimes, luck is truly on your side, and you can find yourself being in the right place at the right time. I recently wrote a blog about an incredible morning of sightings, where we just seemed to be in the right place at the right time all the time. On this particular morning drive, there was a point where we had stopped to watch an African Harrier-Hawk Eagle that was being mobbed by Starlings. While we were in amazement at this, one of the guests then pointed right next to us on the ground – “a leopard tortoise!”. After watching it for a few seconds, we realised something was different…
This leopard tortoise was strangely moving her back legs in a way I hadn’t seen before. I then realised she was digging a hole with her back legs. After some time when she was satisfied that the hole was to her liking, she began doing peculiar movements. I thought to myself, is she pushing out eggs?
All the evidence led to that- firstly, she was digging which only female tortoises do when creating a nest for their eggs. Secondly, the ground was wet around the hole and nowhere else suggesting that she had deliberately wet the ground herself. Now I am sure you are wondering how on earth she would do that? Tortoises have a water storage organ known as a bursa sac, in which they store fluids for their body to draw on during the dry hot periods when there is little water around. They are easily able to replenish this fluid when there is a lot of water around during the wet season. They are also able to release this fluid at will, particularly when threatened or stressed or more importantly to wet and soften the ground making it easier to dig a nest for their eggs.
We returned to camp, giving her some space and privacy, looking to return later in the day to determine what had happened. When we went back that afternoon, we could see how she had scraped the soil over the eggs to protect them underground.
This was extremely exciting for us, as it was the first time we had ever seen this, and it happened right next to us! If we did not stop for that African Harrier-Hawk Eagle we may have not noticed her hidden under a bush laying her eggs. Talk about being at the right place at the right time!
Leopard Tortoises Mating Season
Leopard Tortoises are monogamous, breeding with one partner each year during the mating season (May until October). Males can become aggressive during this season, fighting each other for females by butting and ramming their rivals with their shells.
After mating, and once ready to lay her eggs which normally takes between 3-6 weeks, a female will then dig a hole about 10-30cm deep in the sand. In this hole, she will lay a clutch that contains anywhere from 5 to 30 eggs. Once she has laid the eggs she will bury them with the excavated soil and will use her shell to pat the soil down. Some females may mate and produce another clutch of eggs very soon after having laid the recent clutch and sometimes laying between 5 and 7 clutches in a season.
It is incredible to believe that the incubation of the eggs is on average between 9-12 months, varying on location, temperature, and precipitation. The temperature has an influence on both the length of incubation as well as it determines the sex of the tortoise hatchlings. Eggs that are incubated in cooler temperatures between 26-31°C will be males, and females in warmer temperatures of 31-34°C.
Tortoises are fascinating animals and after witnessing something as amazing as a female digging and laying her eggs, we were able to then dive deeper into the lives of these lesser-noticed little animals.
We took notice of exactly where the tortoise laid her eggs and in roughly 9-12 months I will be sure to check as often as I can to see if there are any signs of tiny little tortoises emerging from the ground, with Londolozi’s current summer heat, I have a suspicion that they may be females!