WATCH: Giant Tortoise Stalks Then Devours Baby Bird

by Jon D. B.

More fascinating than disturbing: This is the first documented case of a giant tortoise hunting prey, let alone consuming it.

“This was totally unexpected,” says Justin Gerlach, a University of Cambridge biologist.

As of August 23’s Current Biology report, we now have our first documented instance of a tortoise hunting.

Gerlach describes the footage as “amazing and slightly horrifying.” Which, for this wildlife technician, feels spot-on, as nature is both of these adjectives in spades. But none of us, including Gerlach, would be seeing this remarkable behavior for ourselves if not for the research’s coauthor Anna Zora. Zora filmed the footage herself as the conservation and sustainability manager of Frégate Island Sanctuary, where the giant tortoise lives.

“[People] don’t think of tortoises as having very interesting behaviors,” Gerlach continues for Science News Monday, before saying “this shows there’s an awful lot more to them.”

See Zora’s footage for yourself below, before we get into the hows and whys of this incredible capture.

On Frégate Island in the Seychelles, an archipelago off the coast of East Africa, researchers captured the first documented instance of a tortoise — usually a strict herbivore — hunting, killing and eating prey. The giant tortoise stalked a young noddy tern, which fell from its nest, for several minutes before biting and killing the bird.

Science News

Giant Tortoise: Strict Herbivore or Opportunistic Omnivore?

We don’t tend to think of giant tortoises as hunters because, well, they aren’t. Their slow, lumbering gate does not a predator make. Nearly everything on this planet can outrun, or immediately fly or swim away from the yawn-like movements of giant tortoise species.

As any wildlife tech who’s worked with herbivores will tell you, however, there are always exceptions to the rules. Take deer for example. Can you imagine Bambi biting the head off a duckling and consuming it whole? Because I’ve watched this happen with my own eyes, too. Deer do eat meat. In fact, Many plant-eating species will switch to meat for protein if the opportunity arises. While this typically comes in the form of carrion (pre-dead) instead of active hunting, both are possibilities – as our new Tortoise Terminator shows.

Above, we see a giant tortoise bite a noddy tern chick’s head in order to crush it after actively chasing it across a log. Then, once down, Anna Zora describes the tortoise eating the chick whole after incapacitating it. This is, by any and every definition, hunting. How absolutely fascinating.

“Because it’s a tree-nesting bird, ground is a dangerous place,” Gerlach adds of the grounded chick. As a result, the unfortunate baby tern stuck to the log, much more akin to a tree than the foreboding ground below. If it would’ve hopped to the soil and waddled off, the tortoise never would’ve come close.

Yet Gerlach expects that this particular tortoise has hunted before, too. The “deliberate” lunging on display does mark a learned behavior. That, or one hungry, hungry tortoise.

The biologist says that this single bit of footage has altered his view of the lumbering reptiles forever. It has this wildlife technician, too.