Story at a glance
- A video captured on Fregate Island in the Seychelles shows a female giant tortoise pursuing a baby tern chick stuck on a log.
- The tortoise manages to get its mouth around the bird’s head and deliver a lethal bite.
- Researchers have long thought the giant tortoise was primarily a herbivore and only consumed animal parts it happened to come across in the wild.
A giant tortoise has been filmed attacking and devouring a baby bird in what researchers believe is the first documented case of deliberate hunting by the species.
The video captured on Fregate Island in the Seychelles, an archipelago off the coast of East Africa, shows a female giant tortoise pursuing a baby tern chick stuck on a log.
As the tortoise closes in, the chick attempts to defend itself by pecking away at its attacker, but the slow-moving tortoise continues to move in on the bird with its mouth wide open and tongue out.
When the chick is pushed to the end of the log, the tortoise manages to get its mouth around the bird’s head and deliver a lethal bite. The Seychelles giant tortoise then swallows the young bird whole.
Researchers capture on film the unexpected moment when a giant #tortoise – thought to be vegetarian – attacks and eats a tern chick: https://t.co/GsAWXSltRs— Cambridge University (@Cambridge_Uni) August 23, 2021
Warning: some viewers may find scenes in this film distressing.@Peterhouse_Cam @jstgerlach #Seychelles pic.twitter.com/wOTb7WN9JO
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Justin Gerlach, author of the study and director of Biology Studies at the University of Cambridge’s Peterhouse College, said in a statement.
“It was horrifying and amazing at the same time,” he said.
The video was taken by Anna Zora, conservation manager on Fregate Island and a co-author of the study, in July 2020.
Researchers have long thought the giant tortoise, found only in the Seychelles and the Galapagos Islands, was primarily a herbivore and only consumed animal parts it happened to come across in the wild.
“It’s always been impossible to tell if the tortoise had directly killed the animal, or if it had just happened to sit down on one and find it conveniently squashed dead,” Gerlach said.
“Why turn down a bit of free protein,” he quipped.
But experts say the video shows the giant tortoise carried out a planned attack, as it goes after the bird with an open mouth and tongue retracted, an indication of aggressive behavior.
The tortoise appears to have experience in hunting young terns on logs. Researchers say the tree-nesting birds avoid touching the floor, which is likely why the young bird did not just jump off the log to make a quick escape as it was slowly threatened.
The hunting behavior may also be a consequence of conservation efforts on the island as both tree-nesting tern numbers and giant tortoise populations have increased in recent years.
“We’re recreating conditions for natural behaviors that people haven’t seen for hundreds of years,” Gerlach said.
The research was published in the journal Current Biology.
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