Galápagos Tortoise

Geochelone Elephantopus

When you meet a Galápagos tortoise, as I did recently, it will do one of three things. If annoyed, it will turn and lumber off across the volcanic tuff. If afraid, it will thud onto the lava and pull in its head, like a toddler who thinks she becomes invisible when she covers her eyes. Or, if it is feeling comfortable, it will fix you with Triassic eyes. It can do this for ten minutes without getting bored. Possibly longer. I challenged several to a staring contest, but I always blinked first.

To meet the gaze of a Galápagos tortoise is thrilling and slightly unnerving. True, it has the vacuousness appropriate to an animal with a brain the size of a walnut. And yet in its eye is a quality absent from, say, the stare of its neighbor and distant relation, the marine iguana. The tortoise has a sentience, an alertness and seeming comprehension that marks the line between ignorance and indifference. It’s not that the tortoise doesn’t get it, one feels; it’s that he just doesn’t care.

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—Nathaniel C. Comfort

Nathaniel C. Comfort is in the history of medicine department at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of The Tangled Field, a biographical study of the geneticist Barbara McClintock. His essays have appeared in Natural History, New Scientist, Science, and the New York Times Book Review. He is not a herpetologist, but his son, Charles, does have a pet frog named “Speckled.”

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