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Thursday, May 26, 2011

the world of giant tortoises, Al's a prize catch. So what if he's 130 years old and weighs 550 pounds.

"There's just nothing wrong with him," said Knoxville Zoo Assistant Curator of Herpetology Michael Ogle. "Every zoo person who has ever seen him says, 'Wow, that's the biggest tortoise I've ever seen.' "

The Aldabra tortoise has lived at the zoo since 1974. He's spent the past 15 years with its other giant male, 350-pound, 90-year-old Tex. These guys need dates, and Ogle was the matchmaker.

Al hadn't seen a female tortoise since 1983. That's when the zoo's female, Debbie, died. Tex, who came to Knoxville in 1995, was last around a female tortoise in the late 1980s.

That changed on Wednesday when Al and Tex began sharing their outdoor summer habitat with Zoo Atlanta female tortoises Patches and Corky. Zookeepers hope the new roommates become mates. The females lay eggs later in summer, and baby tortoises hatch come winter.

But pairing up potential tortoise parents isn't all that simple. In the world of tortoise love, it seems absence really does make the heart grow fonder. The species' males and females must live separately four to five months to successfully reproduce. Neither zoo had enough room to house the animals away from each other on its property.

So, Al and Tex vacationed in Atlanta while that zoo's females, Patches, Corky and Standup, wintered in a Knoxville Zoo barn. East Tennessee winters are too harsh for the tortoises to be outdoors, although they enjoy summer outside.

The first tortoise exchange was made in October. On Wednesday, Knoxville zookeepers returned Standup to Zoo Atlanta to its male tortoise Shuffles. They brought back Al and Tex to Knoxville, where the males discovered Patches and Corky in an exhibit fresh with new clover.

For eager Al, it was lust at first sight. He moved much faster than stereotypical tortoise pace to mate with Patches. Tex, who crawls slowly because of an arthritic-like leg condition, later showed at least passing interest in Corky and Patches.

While the girl tortoises are smaller, each still weighs 200 to 250 pounds. Their ages - an estimated 60 to 70 years - don't hamper their reproductive chances. Female tortoises can lay more than one clutch of five to 15 eggs during the breeding season. Zookeepers would remove the baseball-size eggs from nests dug in the exhibit to incubate them.

Ogle says Aldabra tortoises were recently born at the Tulsa, Okla., zoo. They are native to just one place, the Aldabra Atoll, about 300 miles northwest of Madagascar.

"So if future zoos want to show giant tortoises, we have to start breeding them now," said Ogle.

Any offspring would be shared with Zoo Atlanta. Patches and Corky will leave Knoxville in October. If the arrangement is successful, the zoos could collaborate again.


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