100-year-old tortoise gets fitness training in Vienna zoo

April 12th, 2009 - 8:39 am ICT by IANS  

By Ariane Quade
Vienna, April 12 (DPA) Schurli, the giant tortoise, is the oldest inhabitant of the Vienna zoo. But despite his age of more than 100 years, the animal has started a fitness training programme.

The exercise regime is part of a research project conducted by scientists from the zoo and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to learn about the animal’s visual and learning capabilities.

The male Seychelles giant tortoise is not the most animated creature, but when he notices his keeper Roland Halbauer approaching, he knows his training session is about to start.

Schurli lifts his 200 kilograms onto his sturdy legs and slowly moves towards his blue exercise ball, which is fixed to a long pole held by Halbauer. As the shelled reptile gently pushes against the ball with his head, the trainer rewards him with an acoustic signal and a crunchy carrot.

The Vienna zoo, which is located in the park of the Habsburg’s imperial summer palace Schoenbrunn, also trains six additional giant tortoises.

“Many zoos are only now starting to train reptiles,” said Anton Weissenbacher, the zoo’s director.

The additional movement adds variety to the animals’ life in captivity and helps them lead a more natural lifestyle.

“Giant tortoises normally cover several kilometres in order to get food,” Weissenbacher said.

In nature, the animals also take hours to reach shady spots to protect themselves from the sun.

The zoo keepers have found out that Schurli and his fellow tortoises can distinguish balls of different colours, although it is possible that they really react to different shades of brightness.

Israeli biologist Tamar Gutnick and Michael Kuba, a scientist at the zoo, have done research about these visual skills and have found out that the animals are able to comprehend new tasks.

Besides the tortoises, the keepers have started to train Caiman lizards, albeit for a different reason.

After one of the female olive-green creatures had taken to eating all the food of her fellow lizards, the animals are now being taught to react to balls so that they can be fed separately in the same terrarium.

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