Tortoises, terrapins and turtles of Africa, by Bill Branch

Tortoises, terrapins and turtles of Africa, by Bill Branch.

Tortoises, terrapins and turtles of Africa, by Bill Branch.

Preface by Bill Branch: Although southern Africa is a biodiversity hotspot and South Africa is home to the world's richest diversity of tortoises, terrapins and turtles, there have been relatively few popular books that introduce the lives of these fascinating reptiles to the interested naturalist.

Bill Branch  

Terrapins are much more diverse in tropical Africa, where they swim in the major rivers, rift lakes, marshes and swamps. Sea turtles glide gracefully throughout Africa's coastal waters, but continue to nest on only a few sheltered and protected beaches. Africa's reptile wealth deserves to be better known, and this small volume takes a step in that direction. The coverage of this book is restricted to sub-Saharan Africa and its coastal islands. The relatively few species on the Indian Ocean islands have been excluded, as the taxonomy of some of these forms is unresolved, whilst others have been relatively recently introduced. Similarly, the small radiation of tortoises and terrapins along the coastal regions of North Africa has not been covered.

There is much scientific debate about just how many species are found in these two regions. Moreover, those in North Africa represent a relatively recent radiation, and are more closely related to Eurasian species. Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle is mainly restricted to the western Atlantic, with only a few vagrant specimens known from the Atlantic off North Africa. It is not known to breed on African beaches, or to undergo feeding migrations to African waters, and so is also excluded from this book. With these limitations, the 46 species of chelonians found in sub-Saharan Africa are covered; together they represent nearly 15 per cent of the world's chelonians. This field guide describes how to identify these species, where they are likely to be found, and summarises their lives in simple terms to help the interested naturalist.


Example: Tent Tortoises

Psammobates (Fitzinger, 1835)

These small, attractive tortoises usually have their carapace scutes raised into knobs, with beautiful, radiating light and dark bands giving a striking geometric pattern. The carapace is domed and is never hinged. A nuchal is present. The paired gulars are longer than they are broad. Buttock tubercles are present in some species. Males are much smaller than females. 'Psammobates' means 'sand-loving' (Greek psammos = sand, bates = one that treads or haunts), which alludes to their home in the arid interior of southern Africa, to which they are endemic.

At present three species are recognised. One of these is very varied, comes in a bewildering range of shapes and colours, and has at times been considered to consist of no fewer than six species with 22 races. Another species is endangered due to habitat destruction. A single fossil species, Psammobates antiquorum (Broadley 1997), distinguished by its flattened shell, is known from early Pleisocene cave deposits (1.6-2.0 Ma) found at Sterkfontein in South Africa.

Tent Tortoise Psammobates renrorius (Bell 1828)

Other common name: African Tent Tortoise Named after the raised, conical, tent-like vertebral and costal scutes on the carapace (Latin tentorium = a tent).

Description: A small tortoise, with females growing larger (to 150mm) than males (to 100 mm). Shell shape varies geographically; carapace scutes may be conical and raised, or flattened (see Subspecies). Nuchal typically broader than it is long, often minute, but rarely absent. Usually 11 (sometimes 10 or 12) marginals (numbers 4-7 being broader than they are high). Plastron large and well developed, and has a shallow anterior notch with paired gulars that are longer than they are broad.

Deep anal notch, 2-3 (rarely 1) axillaries and an inguinal. Head moderately small, with a slightly projecting snout, upper jaw hooked, and bicuspid or tricuspid. Prefrontal may be divided longitudinally; frontals subdivided; other head scales small. Each forelimb with 5 claws, and covered on the front with large, irregular, overlapping scales. At least 1 buttock tubercle (which may be reduced or absent in the western race); heel of the hind foot with spur-like scales.

Tail lacks terminal spine. Males with a plastral concavity and longer tails. Head, neck and limbs greyish brown to yellowish or reddish brown to tan. There may be some dark pigment on the head; snout may be yellow. Shell colour varies geographically, although the carapace usually has geometric patterning.

Subspecies: A highly variable species; numerous populations have been named on I the basis of slight differences in colour pattern or shape. Currently only three subspecies considered valid, and even the status of these is problematic. The typical race, P. tentorius tentorius, the common Tent tortoise, is large, usually with 13 marginals; carapace scutes strongly raised into conical 'tents', with a well marked pattern of yellow to orange radiating stripes on a black background. Plastron with solid mahogany markings in the centre and a yellow to orange edge. Occurs in the southern Karoo, from Grahamstown to Matjiesfontein, and entering the Little Karoo, intergrading with the next race in central Karoo.

Conservation: Not currently considered threatened, due to their wide distribution. However, Trimen's Tent Tortoise is restricted to succulent Karoo and it is predicted that this habitat will be severely affected by ongoing climate change.


This is an extract from the book: Tortoises, terrapins and turtles of Africa, by Bill Branch.

Book title: Tortoises, terrapins and turtles of Africa
Author: Bill Branch
Struik Publishers
Cape Town, South Africa 2008
ISBN 9781770074637
Softcover, 15x21 cm, 128 pages, throughout colour photos

Branch, Bill im Namibiana-Buchangebot

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