FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo is home to five Radiated Tortoises: four females and one male.
“They get their name from the patterns on their shell. That’s how you can tell them apart, the radiated pattern on their shells. Each tortoise has a different pattern. It’s like a fingerprint. They each have a distinct pattern,” Animal Care Specialist Jessica Cline said.
Animal Care Specialists will do target training with the tortoises at least once a week.
“We have that target stick and they’re just supposed to touch their nose to the red ball at the end,” Cline explained.
When the tortoise touches the ball, the zoo keeper will blow a whistle to signal they did the desired behavior and they’ll get their reinforcement. The day Wild on WANE was there, the training treat was cut up prickly pear cactus.
Aphrodite also likes a little pat on the back for a job well done.
‘She’s our most personable tortoise and she doesn’t always appreciate the food reinforcer but she really likes scratches, so sometimes we’ll use that as her reinforcer for training so she still gets something she enjoys,” Cline said.
Their shells are made out of keratin, which is the same thing as human hair and nails.
“They do have feeing in their shells. All the tortoises also like the rain and they kind of do a little shimmy and we call that their rain dance. they really like that,” Cline said.
The target training is the base behavior to learn to lead to more complicated tasks.
“You can use that to help train other behaviors. The target you can use to help move them around the exhibit and it gets them used to what you expect with training and then you can shape more difficult behaviors in the future,” Cline said.
Native to Madagascar, they love the hot sunny days and usually eat grasses and greens.
“Here at the zoo we also give them some veggies every day and a rotation of greens and we’ll also give him a pellet to make sure they’re getting all the nutrition they need,” Cline said. “But they love grass and they just love to eat the grass that’s on their exhibit all day.”
In addition to the target training, the tortoises work with a big red spool-like stool.
“So for the red bobbin we’re working on station behavior. We move it around and they’re just supposed to walk toward it and they’ll get reinforcement. Once they’re solid on this behavior we hope we can use that to help have them voluntarily move on and off exhibit,” Cline explained.
While it is fun to watch them in action in the zoo, the radiated tortoise numbers in the wild are dropping.
“They are a critically endangered species and one of the biggest threats is the pet trade,” Cline said. “TSA, the Turtle Survival Alliance, we partner with them to help with populations of tortoises in the wild. We do have a breeding recommendation for these guys too help with population numbers so we hope to have successful breeding in the future as well.”
Wild on WANE airs on WANE 15 every Tuesday at 5 p.m. and on First News Saturday from 7 a.m. – 9 a.m.