Shell-abration! Galápagos tortoises show off new home during ‘Reptilemania’

The San Diego Zoo’s 17 Galápagos tortoises got a bigger, brighter and more comfortable home thanks to a $1 million project debuting Sept. 16. The project’s completion coincides with “Reptilemania,” a special show celebrating all things reptile and amphibian, Sept. 16-19 at the zoo.

Don Boyer, San Diego Zoo curator of herpetology, said he and many others are excited to see the tortoises enjoying their new home.

“As people come out to enjoy the new Galápagos tortoise exhibit, they can also get excited about other reptiles and Reptile Mesa,” Boyer said. “In the past, ‘Reptilemania’ has been very popular, with opportunities to watch snake and lizard feedings, chances to meet reptiles up close, and fun activities for the kids.”

The effort to renovate the tortoise barn and exhibit area was launched after San Diego Zoo Trustee Emeritus Tom Fetter and his wife, Jane, of La Jolla donated a $500,000 challenge grant. A past president of the Zoological Society of San Diego’s board of trustees, Fetter said he was motivated to issue the grant by the age and dignity of the tortoises.

Donors answered his call by meeting, then exceeding, the challenge.

Dr. Charles Townsend of the New York Zoological Society brought the iconic tortoises to the San Diego Zoo in 1930. His intent was to set up breeding colonies in Bermuda, Miami, Hawaii and San Diego so the world’s population would not be at risk on the Galápagos Islands.

Ten of the tortoises Townsend brought to the zoo are still living here. Some are believed to be about 100 years old, while the youngest of their offspring is 9. Of the 17 tortoises in the San Diego Zoo’s exhibit, 10 are male and seven female.

The San Diego Zoo’s breeding program produced 94 tortoise hatchlings, and the zoo now has one of the largest colonies of Galápagos tortoises in the world, outside of the Ecuadorian Islands.

The exhibit has been closed since March as the renovations took place. The tortoises have been living in a private area at the zoo’s hospital during the construction.

Renovations include:

  • A “contact zone” where guests can touch a tortoise when a keeper is present.
  • A new life-sized Galápagos tortoise statue that children can climb on.
  • Updated graphics, including six flip panels in the shape of tortoise shells with information on each subspecies.
  • An area where volunteers can share information with guests about the tortoises and show educational artifacts.
  • A rebuilt, larger, brighter barn that will enhance the zoo’s efforts in breeding the tortoises.
  • New pools for the tortoises to wallow in.
  • Enhanced landscaping, including succulents from the North and South American regions.
  • Sleek, stainless steel railing to better view the tortoises.

San Diego Zoo

  • Hours:9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily; to 5 p.m. Sept. 25 only
  • Location:Balboa Park
  • One-Day Pass:$27-$37
  • Contact:(619) 231-1515,

Turtle, Tortoise or Terrapin?


Spends most of its life in the water. Turtles tend to have webbed feet for swimming. Sea turtles (Cheloniidae family) are especially adapted for an aquatic life, with long feet that form flippers and a streamlined body shape. They rarely leave the ocean, except when the females come ashore to lay their eggs.

Other turtles live in fresh water, such as ponds and lakes. They swim, but they also climb out onto banks, logs or rocks to bask in the sun. In cold weather, they may burrow into the mud, where they go into torpor until spring brings warm weather again.


A land-dweller that eats low-growing shrubs, grasses and even cactus. Tortoises do not have webbed feet. Their feet are round and stumpy for walking on land. Tortoises that live in hot, dry habitats use their strong legs to dig burrows. Then, when it’s too hot in the sun, they slip underground.


Spends its time both on land and in water, but it always lives near water, along rivers, ponds and lakes. Terrapins are often found in brackish, swampy areas. The word ‘terrapin’ comes from an Indian word meaning ‘a little turtle.’

— SOURCE: San Diego Zoo