What's a tortoise?
Well, it depends rather upon where in the world you are, but on the whole most people think of a tortoise as a land-dwelling reptile that has a shell on its back, the carapace (and one under its belly, too, the plastron).
But of course a tortoise starts off inside another shell entirely:
photo by Mayer Richard
Tortoises are tremendous beasts. The oldest land animal in the world was said to be an Aldabran tortoise called Adwaita, who may have lived to be 255 years old (you can get some idea of how old a tortoise is by looking at the number of growth rings on its shell, though this doesn't work if it's a pet which hasn't had to hibernate).
Galapagos tortoise, photo by Daniel Ramirez
Sadly, and as is often the case with people, too, old age does not necessarily bring wisdom. The brain of a South American tortoise does not have a hippocampus, which we humans use for processing emotion, and also when learning, for navigation, and for memory. Still, it may be that a tortoise can remember things using a different part of its brain, or perhaps ( sad thought) there's not much in a tortoise's life that's worth remembering. After all, they never go anywhere very much - the world record for a tortoise sprint is 5 miles per hour (8 kph) - and when hibernating they tend to get so bored that they even stop breathing.
Still, who isn't fascinated by tortoises? Why, some even come decorated in Art Deco style:
photo of an Indian Star tortoise by Jacob.jose
And who can help but wonder, when gazing into a dark, inscrutable eye, what alien kind of intelligence dwells behind the scales?
Word To Use Today: tortoise. This word probably comes from the Old French tortue, which is probably something to do with the Latin tortus, twisted. Originally, though, the word tortoise comes from the Greek tartaroukhos, coming from Tartarus, because tortoises were believed to come from the Underworld.