NATURAL HISTORY AND TAXONOMY

KINGDOM, Animalia
PHYLUM, Chordata
CLASS, Reptilia
SUBCLASS, Anapsida
SUPERORDER, Chelonia
ORDER, Testudines
FAMILY, Testudinidae
SUBFAMILY, Testudinidae
GENUS, Testudo
SPECIES, kleinmanni

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Click the icon above to view the Tewksbury Institute of Herpetology Complete Chelonian Taxonomy List, Copyright 2003 by the World Chelonian Trust.

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TAXONOMY AND PHYLOGENETICS

Traditional taxonomy has been challenged recently by the development of phylogenetic techniques that allow us to measure tortoises DNA and RNA relationships. Such research via mitochondrial DNA in the Testudo branch of the Testudinidae family has revealed that there are two major clades within the Testudo genus. One of those clades includes the Testudo graeca, Testudo marginata, and Testudo kleinmanni genome lines, the other includes Testudo hermanni in all its subspecies, agrionemys horsfieldii, and Indotestudo elongata (van Der Kuyl et. al., 2002).

Many "generations" of fossil tortoises separate us from the time when the ancestors of modern chelonians first appeared on the face of the earth 280 million years ago. Estimates of the rise of Testudo kleinmanni as a species apart from the Testudo marginata line range from 9 million years ago at the earliest, in the Pliocene Epoch, to as recently as 1.1 million years ago during the Pleistocene ice ages (Willemsen, 2002). The lack of intraspecific genetic diversity in tortoise populations suggests to some researchers more recent dates for the origin of modern species. In the view of the present author, this lack of diversity in combination with the evidence of the fossil record suggests rather the relatively slow rate of genetic change within tortoise populations. Consequently, I would argue for the earlier date of separation of the kleinmanni from the marginata line. Doubtless, modern kleinmanni have changed from their 9 million year old ancestors. But probably very slowly.

The Egyptian Tortoise: its natural history, its captive care, its beauty, its lore. . .
The natural and un-natural history of the Egyptian tortoise . . .
kleinmanni home | golden beauties | desert life | climate's role | captive needs | unique diet | Captive Habitat 1: basics | Captive Habitat 2: habitat development | Breeding | hatchling care | when something goes wrong | natural and un-natural history | All in the family | captive behaviors | tortoise links | references

The most common version of Testudo kleinmanni's natural history identifies them as descendants from the same line as Testudo marginata, speciating perhaps as recently as 1.1 million years ago (see sidebar at left for discussion of alternate possibilities). A long time, and not very long at all. One might imagine that they once shared the Mediterranean coastline only with other non-hominid creatures. Then humans entered the picture.

The modern pet trade and other calamities are not the first problems the kleinmanni have faced. From ancient times, T. kleinmanni has had a troubled relationship with the humans with whom it has shared the landscape. Even in the most distant past of civilization on the North African coast, habitat was destroyed to make way for pharaonic building projects. Unlike some aquatic turtles, the kleinmanni appear never to have been a dietary item in ancient Egypt, though parts of their carcasses were used for a variety of purposes.

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THE DEITY PTAH, CREATOR OF EGYPT
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Photo by Hamza Hawas

WHEN PHARAOHS AND DEITIES RULED EGYPT

Ptah, pictured above holding a Pharaonic sceptor and wearing the blue battle Crown of Lower Egypt, entered the pantheon as a local deity in Memphis on the Nile, patron of craftsmen. But by the days of Khufu and the Great Pyramid, Ptah had come to be seen as the creator of all things, and had given his name to the whole land: "Ha kem ptah," or "House of Ptah."

Among Ptah's many creatures, Shetw (Tortoise, Turtle), was neither especially remarkable nor well esteemed. Excluded from lists of animal offerings to the deities, nevertheless there are great quantities of turtle and tortoise bones associated with archaeology at the great ceremonial complex at Heirakonpolis in Upper Egypt. This at least suggests that sacrifice of Chelonia served some ritual or liturgical purpose within the ancient Egyptian ceremonial system.

In the tomb of Ramses I, a statue now in the possession of the British Museum was discovered which can best be described as a human figure whose head has been replaced by the body of the land tortoise with its head outstretched. This is the only known such representation from Egypt of what is considered by some to be an unknown tortoise deity.

It was also the lot of kleinmanni and other tortoises to have their shells made into bracelets, rings, and other jewelry items. In other instances, the entire carapace was sometimes converted into small bowls (Raffaele, 2000).

MEDICAL STELE
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Photo by Hamza Hawas

MEDICAL PRACTICE IN ANCIENT EGYPT

Ours is not the first age in which animals have been used in the practice of medicine in ways that seemed curative to a particular culture or time. Indeed, ancient Egypt had some of the most sophisticated medical insights and practices known to humankind up to the explosion of science that followed in the wake of the Western Renaissance. Egyptian physicians (swnw, or "sunu") included both females and males among their ranks, and were epotomized by the great scholar Imhotep (above).

One of the most curious hazards that Testudo kleinmanni faced in ancient times lay precisely in the arena of medical practice. For treatment of cataracts of the eye, the Eber medical papyrus prescribes that, "You shall make a paste of the brains of the small tortoise and honey, and shall apply it to the eyes," (translation mine). There is of course no record of how many people were cured of cataracts by this unusual method.

MEDICAL TEXT
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Photo by Hamza Hawas

n.b.: The point of this page in the Testudo kleinmanni site is neither to point fingers nor to make light of a culture different from my own. It is, rather, to point out that human interaction with tortoises is multiform, has been around a very long time, and is endemic to virtually all cultures in one way or another. The sad bit is that throughout history this interaction has invariably had a negative impact on both the individual tortoise and its local and global populations. I and my culture doubtless have behaviors that would be as repugnant to the average citizen of ancient Egypt as the notion of using kleinmanni brains for medicine is to me.

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"You can't trample infidelswhen you're a tortoise.I mean, all you could do isgive them a meaningful look."

-- Terry Pratchett, "Small Gods"

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The Egyptian Tortoise: its natural history, its captive care, its beauty, its lore. . .
Fred L. Erwin, Jr., 2004 - 2005 C.E.