Tortoises’ reproductive behaviour makes them the rabbits of the reptile world
And you still want to read about this stuff? Fine. This week, news from the garden of a family somewhere in England. After Boris the tortoise made a slow dash for freedom, the Horners lifted every leaf and flower in search of the animal, even scanning the borders with an infra-red camera. In desperation, they took a laptop outside and played a tortoise sex film on YouTube. “Lo and behold Boris appeared,” Pamela Horner told The Times.
The number of tortoise-mating clips online – about 24,000 on YouTube – is either evidence of the hibernating reptiles’ unexpected randiness, or our own warped minds. An eight-year-old film of a pair of giant tortoises going at it, the male emitting a baritone groan, has more than five million views. In the next biggest hit, Toby has sex with a Croc sandal, producing a futile squeak.
Ask a tortoise owner about sex and most will come back with some stories. They are the rabbits of the reptile world. “For a while, we had five tortoises and every summer was tarnished by the soundtrack of rampant shagging,” says Emma Beddington, a writer who lives with her family in Belgium. “The noise – like a dog’s squeaky chew-toy being stepped on repeatedly – and the awful open-mouthed facial expressions were dreadful.”
The animals would chase each other “Benny Hill style around the garden”, she adds. “They are much faster than people think, and when they caught up with their target, they were also not very good at getting the right end, angle or, indeed, the right sex.”
After one mating attempt, Beddington’s first tortoise could not restow his penis. “Since we only had the one tortoise at the time, we have absolutely no idea what he was trying to have sex with,” she says. A vet diagnosed une érection qui a mal tourné (a faulty erection) and cut it off, significantly reducing the animal’s sexual appetite and body weight. For Beddington, the scars were psychological; a stump care regime required the daily application of iodine.
Anthropomorphism shouldn’t apply to reptiles with hard shells, yet the unexpected noises, “sex faces” and vigour involved in tortoise boffing makes it at once repulsive and compelling. Ben Tapley, who leads the herpetology team at London Zoo, confirms that many species are, by nature, very horny. “On occasion we may separate females from males to give them a break from repeated mating attempts,” he says.
Males reserve hidden energy not only for sex, but also for fighting in pursuit of a mate. “Some species have even developed a protrusion on their shell which is thought to assist them in overturning other male tortoises,” Tapley adds. “And in some species, a male tortoise that has no access to other males may be reluctant to mate with a female.” Zookeepers often resort to putting males together to build tension and interest in sex.
Pity any male, of any species, who interrupts a coital tortoise. In March, Paul Rose, a National Geographic presenter, stumbled on a sex scene on an island near Madagascar. The giant male stopped to chase – but failed to outpace – the man for almost 400 metres, hissing all the way. Sex noises, meanwhile, have made it on to the big screen, too. Remember that kitchen scene in Jurassic Park, when the kids hide from the velociraptors? The noise they make (the raptors) is tortoise loving, recorded by the film’s sound team.
There is much more to discover about tortoise sex, including studies of the hydraulic mechanics of their erections, mal tourné or otherwise, and what they might tell us about the evolution of our own penises. For that and more, head to Google, but proceed slowly and take any precaution available.