Last April I first wrote about Clark and Lois (the super tortoises), a pair of adult Geochelone sulcata that came to live with me. Since that time, something very exciting occurred. On October 28, Lois produced twenty eggs. For me it was a very special experience to witness the repetition of a process that had been going on for millions of years before people existed on earth.
Geochelone sulcata or the African spurred tortoise, the largest mainland tortoise species in the world, is in the same genus (Geochelone) as the large Galapagos and Aldabra tortoises. They are reported to grow to over two hundred pounds in weight and thirty-six inches in length. According to Pritchard's Encyclopedia of Turtles and Ernst and Barbour's Turtles of the World, Geochelone sulcata are from the southern Sahara Desert, an area of Africa which crosses the countries of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Sudan, and Ethiopia. Clark and Lois, who are about eleven years old, weigh thirty-nine pounds and forty-five pounds, respectively. (A very large desert tortoise might weigh sixteen to eighteen pounds.)
I had no idea that Lois was gravid (although I certainly knew that she and Clark had been working on it all summer) until she started to act a little differently than usual. She walked around a lot more, pressing her nose to the ground and sniffing. On October 27, she found a spot that she liked (in the middle of the lawn, not in the nice sandy area on the side of the house) and began digging a hole. She spent several hours at this, late in the afternoon, and then left it. (It looked like a backhoe had been at work.)
On the advice of Michael Connor, I cleared away some of the rocks and roots and filled the hole back in. The next day, early in the morning, she came back to the same spot and began to dig again. Again she left the hole after a few hours and again after a little housekeeping I filled in the hole again.
Finally, in the early afternoon on the 28th, Lois began to dig in the same spot for the third time. This time she worked much harder and faster. At about 4:00 pm, she had a hole that was slanted at about a 45° angle and was about 2 feet deep. At the bottom of this hole she dug out a little hollow with her back feet. (Most of the earlier digging had been done with her fore legs). She made a place for each of her back feet to rest at the bottom of the hole next to the hollow for the eggs. She then began laying her eggs.
It was incredible! What a special privilege for me to see this happening here in my yard. Here in suburban Los Angeles, she was behaving just as other sulcata might in Africa. I actually saw an egg emerge from her body and fall into the hollow!
When Lois began to cover up the nest I knew that she was through laying. I picked her up from the nest and removed the eggs. Then I put her back on the hole, allowing her to finish the process. If you are wondering what Clark, the expectant father, was doing all this time...well, he was ignoring the whole thing. A passing Hermann's tortoise showed more interest than Clark did.