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  • Writer's pictureFrank DiGiovanni

The Tortoise and the Hare

Updated: Sep 8, 2022

Welcome to the next installation of SMLI’s animal friends. This week we tackle a story we have probably all heard before, The Tortoise and the Hare.

Before we get into it, let me remind you that in our last post, we introduced you to one of the two species of rabbits that call SMLI home. Today you'll get a little information on the other rabbit.

Panda, SMLI's domestic rabbit, enjoying some breakfast. Image courtesy of author

Let’s address the Hare, eh, well Rabbit portion of this story and introduce you to Panda. First off, rabbits and hares are two different types of animals. Although closely related, they belong to the same order (Lagomorpha) and family (Leporidae), but they have separate genuses. The 30 or so species of hares fit into just one genus (Lepus), whereas rabbits branch out into 10 genuses, including the North American genus Sylvilagus, more commonly known as cottontails. There are also about 30 species of rabbits, including the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), which is often bred as a pet.[1]

Panda here is a domestic, short-haired, short-eared rabbit. What you can’t see from this picture is what she is eating. While strictly herbivorous, their diet is often supplemented with pellets. These pellets are made of compacted alfalfa and timothy (hay), grains and vitamins, which are things (alfalfa and timothy) which they would find in the wild. Her ears, though much shorter than Romeo and Oswald (our English Lop rabbits), they serve the same purpose as theirs. When hot, rabbits can pump hot blood to their ears where the blood vessels act as giant radiators, getting rid of excess body heat and when cold, can constrict these same blood vessels to save heat! They are also the reason why domestic (and wild) rabbits can hear sounds at close to 1¾ miles! Like Romeo and Oswald, Panda has powerful hind legs which can propel her to speeds of 25 to 45 mph! Although Panda only uses this speed to try to escape the occasional bath as there are no predators to push her to run at her top speed.

Panda submitting to a bath. Image courtesy of Natassia Balek, SMLI educator.

Throughout her entire lifespan, Panda’s teeth will never stop growing so we ensure she has something hard, like a piece of rabbit-safe wood and her hay give her something to help grind her teeth so they don’t become a problem. Despite her most sincere desire for them Panda is only given a carrot as a treat as they’re high in sugar. Along with her hay, she’s given a variety of vegetables she might find in the wild like broccoli, kale or lettuce. Speaking of food, rabbits (and hares) are prey for other animals, and her face gives you a hint to that. Look and you’ll notice that she has one eye on one side of her head, this gives her almost 360° vision as compared to the roughly 120° that humans have. Prey animals have this adaptation to help them see their predators coming. Predators like cats, dogs (and humans) have their eyes facing forward to give them 3-dimensional vision to help them focus on and track their prey. Although in the wild, rabbits’ lifespans are considerably less than domestic rabbits, we can expect Panda to live between 8-14 years of age.

Rudy enjoying some time outside. Look carefully and you’ll see the faint “Rudy ring” he made in his grazing. Image courtesy of author

Now to Rudy, our Sulcata (African spurred) tortoise. Scientifically known as Geochelone sulcate, this large tortoise is one of the largest in the world! Rudy here exhibits the characteristic coloring with his “spurs” along his upper shell (called a carapace) near his legs and head. Strictly an herbivore, Rudy and other sulcatas originate in arid and semi-arid areas of Africa where they are grazers, eating a variety of grass, hay and other weeds. Rudy also really enjoys bok choy, green leaf lettuce and cabbage; they are also voracious eaters and seemingly always want food. (If you look closely at the picture at right, you can make out a “Rudy ring”. This happens when we take Rudy outside and as he eats, he slowly turns in a circle.) Rudy and other Sulcatas can be quite curious and friendly, often following us (at his own pace) when we are outside with him. Sulcatas are known to be excelled burrowers and when kept outside (permanently), should have an enclosure with a fence that goes two feet deep for this very reason! Because they’re native to Africa, they have a high tolerance for heat, and can handle temperatures in excess of 100°F or more, especially when they have a place to get shade when they’re hot.

As part of the phylum Chordata (animals with backbones), tortoises (and turtles) are the only animals with a shell. These bones have plates called “scutes” (pronounced “scoots”), made out of the same stuff your fingernails are made from, keratin. When born, Rudy and other Sulcata tortoises are small, often less than two inches in diameter and less than one ounce, but they will not stay that way for very long!

Up close of Rudy, his claws, the spurs on the edge of his shell and scales on his front legs. Image courtesy of SMLI.

Capable of living for over 70 years, adult Sulcatas like Rudy will continue to grow, becoming on one of the second-largest species of tortoise on Earth; he'll grow between 80 and 110 pounds! So, it is essential that if you’re considering bringing one into your life, that you have PLENTY of space for it to grow and that there’s someone down the road who can take it if you’re unable to care for it. In the wild, once large enough, not many animals prey on a tortoise like Rudy but when smaller, it’s not uncommon to be eaten by a wild dogs or coyotes when sleeping, Sulcata tortoises are at the mercy of the harsh environment where wild ones live but as an owner, you can give it the conditions it requires for good health. Rudy has no such worries, and his lifespan is expected to be well into the 80s!

So, which one is faster in straight line race? To be blunt. Panda. Panda is a Ferrari and Rudy’s… not.

Remember that if you and your family are considering a pet of any kind, to do your research. And remember that animals like Rudy require a LONG-TERM commitment!! Find reputable breeders, talk to a veterinarian or people who have experience with the type of animal you’re considering bringing into your life. Not all of the characteristics described here are seen by ALL animals of the species; like humans, each animal is a unique individual.


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