Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Thoughts on Chelodina longicollis, &c.

I hope nobody will read the previous entry and think I'm a horrible egotist who doesn't care about animals as individuals and just treat them as I please regardless of how that may frighten or traumatize them. That is genuinely not the case. When it comes to freshwater turtles I have gotten pretty good by now at reading their body language and interpreting the signs they give as to what they're feeling in regards to both human contact and contact with their own kind. I promise that I would not have picked the longicollis, below, up if it had been unwilling or frightened of that close a contact with an unfamiliar human.

As evidence of that I can offer the juvenile specimens of Mauremys annamensis which were kept in a nearby enclosure (pictures coming up :-) which I also would have loved to have picked up and taken a closer look at, but which were much more fearful than the three longicollis and showed clearly that they would have found such close contact intimidating and disturbing. So I let these be after only a few attempts to get them close enough. (They nipped at my fingers a few times at first, but then retreated.) The longicollis was startled at first and withdrew its head (fully) and legs (partly). But it was only startled, not truly frightened, and it only took about 30 seconds before it extended its head and limbs again. It also did not stink me up with its musk gland ;-) as this species will do when frightened and/or cornered.

Having this contact with longicollis was very interesting. (To me, anyway. ;-) As I said yesterday I'm very used to being bitten by aquatic turtles of a comparable size to these. A little bigger, in fact, I'd suppose. My two small ones are rather nippy, Herman very much so. But my little guys are Chinemys species, which are Cryptodira, not Pleurodira like longicollis. As I said I had never, before Saturday, had any contact with any Pleurodira turtle. I've always figured that they're the same as the vastly more common Cryptodira group, to the extent that I've ever really thought about it. But interacting with these three Pleurodira was quite surprising. When you entice a Cryptodira turtle to the surface and it snaps and/or bites at your fingertips, there is a certain motion in the water ... I don't know how to describe it to someone who's not familiar with turtles, but they - that is, apparently, Cryptodira - move in a certain way in that situation. I expected the same from longicollis. But there was a noticeable difference, there really was. When longicollis snapped and bit, the motion in the water - from my perspective, obviously - felt quite different. Much more like the motion of a fish. If I hadn't know that it was turtles in the water I would definitely have guessed fish. It was surprising and pretty fascinating. :-)

A final thought: regarding the heads of these animals. Look at their heads in the 'group shots'. My mother has ophidiophobia and on some level herpetophobia too ... to whatever extent any other reptiles remind her of snakes. She's not a big fan of my turtles - the little guys she thinks are OK, but my RES apparently is some kind of hideous & evil monster in her eyes, to the point that if he's walking around on the floor she doesn't dare to sit normally but has to pull her legs up into the couch or chair. So that he won't BITE OFF HER TOES!!! or whatever it is she thinks he'll do. (He's never done anything to her. I'm not sure he's ever even really looked at her. :-) She thinks he's so creepy because he has a 'snake head'. 'Oh, his head is like a snake head, it's so creepy!' But you know what: he actually doesn't. He doesn't have a snake head, he has a turtle head! Captain Obvious to the rescue? Well, apparently not, since my mother and no doubt a legion of ophidiophobes with her feel that way. But if you think that any aquatic turtle has a 'snake head', then you've just never really looked at a turtle. And longicollis proved that to me on Saturday.

An aquatic turtle will typically have a bullet-shaped head - rounded and with a pointed snout. This is especially pronounced in freshwater turtles of the Cryptodira group. Snakes, however, have very different heads - flattened and wedge-shaped. They are not the same beyond both having scaly skin. And this was really brought home to me by seeing those longicollis - because if my mother thinks Raphael has a snake head then she'd freak if she saw those. ;-) It was really striking how different they looked from the Cryptodira that I'm used to. And I have to say that as exciting as seeing those little critters was I'm not at all sure that I'd want to own one. I've never really taken to their appearance in pictures and I didn't in the flesh either. One of the features that I find so appealing in the turtles I have and have had are their heads and faces ... not at all creepy but totally adorable. :-) But longicollis IMO are far from adorable. They look like little aliens with those almost featureless faces and staring eyes. Fascinating animals, and I'm thrilled to have seen them, but cute they were not. IMHO. :-)

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