Skip to Main Content
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance logo
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Library logo

Galapagos Giant Tortoises (Chelonoidis spp.) Fact Sheet: Managed Care

History in Managed Care

History of Managed Care

  • Kept as pets
    • Collected and taken back on ships (Daggett 1915)
    • Including by Charles Darwin (Standford 2010)
  • Zoo collections
    • Today, well-represented in zoos, worldwide (Bonin et al. 2006)
    • Reproduce well in some zoo collections (Bonin et al. 2006)
      • Often mixed-species
        • Not suitable for reintroductions to the wild
      • May lower illegal take from the Galápagos Islands

San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

  • 1928: First Giant Galápagos Tortoises (GGTs) brought into the San Diego Zoo’s collection
    • Part of an effort to establish breeding colonies at select zoos, worldwide
      • To safeguard wild populations from extinction
    • Some of these original GGTs still live at the San Diego Zoo (San Diego Zoo Animals & Plants 2017)
  • GGTs were featured in the petting paddock of the Children’s Zoo (Stephenson 2015)
    • Bronze sculpture of Lonesome George later took their place
  • 1930s: More than 30 GGTs lived at the San Diego Zoo (Stephenson 2015)
  • 1958: First GGT eggs hatched on October 21st (Stephenson 2015)
    • Result of reptile curator Charles Shaw adding sand to the GGTs’ exhibit
      • Mimicked their natural breeding grounds
    • For years, was the only GGT breeding colony among zoos, worldwide
  • 1964: Received prestigious Edward H. Bean Award for excellence in managed care breeding and contributing to GGT conservation
  • 1977: A male GGT, "Diego," from the San Diego Zoo, was returned to the Galápagos (Milinkovitch et al. 2012; Stephenson 2015)
    • "Diego" was added to an Española GGT breeding program on Santa Cruz
      • One of only 15 breeding individuals left in the world
    • Had lived at the San Diego Zoo since the 1930s
  • 2010: Remodeled Fetter Family Galápagos Tortoise exhibit opened at the San Diego Zoo (San Diego Zoo Animals & Plants 2017; Stephenson 2015)
    • Touchable replicas of GGT shells
      • Show diversity of shapes on different islands
    • Heated barn
    • Indoor nesting area

Husbandry Practices at the San Diego Zoo

Diet (Jonny Carlson, personal communication, 2016)

  • Dark, leafy greens
    • Romaine lettuce
    • Collard greens
    • Bok choy
    • Spinach
    • Kale
    • Dandelion greens
  • Grass hay
  • Nutrition pellets for additional vitamins and minerals
  • Special treats
    • See Enrichment, below

Healthcare and training (Jonny Carlson, personal communication, 2016, and as noted)

  • Regular health checks
    • Keepers examine all parts of a GGT’s body by stimulating the “finch response” behavior
      • GGTs stretch their legs and neck
        • Observed in the wild
        • Allows Galápagos Finches to remove ticks and other parasites from their skin
  • Beaks trimmed
    • In the wild, chewing on bark wears beak down
    • In managed care, GGTs eat softer food
      • Trimming keeps beak at proper length
  • Nails trimmed
    • Infrequently needed (i.e., only if any grow long)
  • Trained to respond to rings of a cowbell
    • Used by keepers to:
  • Each GGT has its own personality (San Diego Zoo Animals & Plants 2017)
    • Some shy, others more social

Enrichment (Jonny Carlson, personal communication, 2016)

  • Food
    • Prickly pear cactus pads
    • Banana stalks
    • Pumpkins (seasonally)
    • Carrots and sweet potato pieces
      • Hidden inside a rolling “boomer ball”
        • Gives GGTs exercise and mental stimulation
  • Interactions with keepers (San Diego Zoo Animals & Plants 2017)
    • Neck rubs and scratches
  • Interactions with San Diego Zoo guests
    • Tours where guests feed and pet the tortoises
    • Tortoises stand and stretch their necks while being petted
      • Response similar to “finch response” observed in the Galápagos

Breeding and genetics management

  • Sand provided for nest building (Stephenson 2015)
  • More than 90 successful hatchings from 1958-2016 (Jonny Carlson, personal communication, 2016)
  • Studies of relatedness between managed care- and wild-born GGTs (Russello et al. 2007; Benavides et al. 2012)
    • Part of an effort to identify genetically-important GGTs in managed care

An Important Achievement

San Diego Zoo Galapagos with hatchlings

In 1958, the San Diego Zoo had its first success in hatching Giant Galápagos Tortoise eggs. Other successes soon followed. For years, the San Diego Zoo's breeding colony was the only one among zoos, worldwide.

In this 1959 photo, "Daisy" takes a walk with four hatchlings.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Sweet Bites

Galapagos tortoise and watermellon

Watermelons and pumpkins are two dietary treats offered to Giant Galápagos Tortoises at the San Diego Zoo.

In the wild, these tortoises play an important ecological role by spreading seeds from the fruits they eat.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

SDZWA Library Links