Even for chelonians, aging has its challenges

Conventional wisdom says turtles don’t suffer from the ravages of old age. But a new study and the experiences of one AAHA-accredited practice beg to differ with that wisdom.

Researchers from Iowa State University have amassed nearly 30 years of data on painted turtles and found that aging female painted turtles suffer a steep dip in fertility before the end of their lives. While older females tended to lay larger eggs, the data suggests that their odds of successful offspring diminished.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on May 2.

Thomas H. Boyer, DVM, DABVP, is the owner of AAHA-accredited practice Pet Hospital of Penasquitos in San Diego, California, a reptile and amphibian practice that sees primarily tortoises. When asked about the challenges of aging, he agreed.

“Tortoises are longer lived than painted turtles,” Boyer told NEWStat. “I suspect painted turtles used to live longer but these days a chelonian is much more likely to die from humans than old age. If there are roads nearby, those roads kill turtles.” So, too, do fishing hooks that aren’t removed, he added.

Despite such human interventions, however, some chelonians do reach old age.

“I’ve seen several desert tortoises that were in their eighties,” Boyer said. “All the desert tortoises I've seen that were really old lived in a yard with Bermuda grass, which has similar nutritional profile to what they eat in the wild.” Conversely, the most common health issue is poor nutrition.

“In general, most chelonians can live to 50 years, some to 100 years, and an exceptional few to 150 years, or more,” said Boyer. Such pets are passed from one generation to the next, Boyer added, and their owners have strong attachments with the pets.

Photo credit: © iStock/Michelle Milliman

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