Slow But Steady – World Turtle Day

May 24, 2009 at 12:12 am | Posted in itchy mouth | 2 Comments
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I din know that there’s a day dedicated for our four-legged shelled friends since year 2000, though I knew 2006 was the Year of the Turtle. But I think the purpose of both events aimed at raising awareness of the plight of turtles and tortoises and to conserve the decreasing population, saving them from extinction. Many species of turtles and tortoises are threatened by habitat loss, pollution of water, egg poaching, collection for the pet trade, as well as for food and traditional medicine. Hence, though they are slow movers, their numbers are certainly going down fast. 😦

Turtles and tortoises hibernate in the temperate countries. This month is the period when many have recently emerged from their long winter hibernation, and begin their search for mates and nesting areas. Hence May 23 has been designated World Turtle Day.

Since it is the World Turtle Day, let’s have a little turtle talk. :p

You will be surprised again, that many people have mistaken or confused between the name ‘turtle’ and ‘tortoise’. There were many times when Itchyfingers heard people pointing at the turtles in ponds and called them ‘tortoises’. Have lost count how many times I corrected children on that.

So, what’s the difference between turtles and tortoises then? Not same meh?

First, the difference is the habitat. Turtles live in water. As such, turtles have webbed feet (like ducks) to facilitate efficient swimming. Sea turtles have flippers. They spend most of their time in water, either the sea or pond, and leaving the water only to lay eggs or to bask under the sun. Most are omnviores.

The Soft-shelled Turtle 

One of the most bizarre-looking turtles, the Matamata (Chelus fimbriatus)
is also one of the largest freshwater turtles. It is from the Northern South

The mouth of the Matamata is wide and the snout is long. The eyes are very
small and they are located by the snout. Can’t help but think that it looks
like it’s snorkelling under water…hahah…
8) Itchyfingers dunnu about
you, but I think Matamata looks damn cute and cool!

Tortoises, on the other hand, are land dwellers so do not need webbed feet. Instead they have rounded legs for crawling. Their shells are also more dome-shaped. Most are herbviores.

The Aldabra Giant Tortoise (Geochelone gigantea) from Seychelles,
is the second largest tortoise after the
Galapagos Giant Tortoise. This is
Astove from our Zoo, a male estimated to be more than 75 year old

Hmmm…sounds simple huh…But to make things complicated, there’s another group named “terrapins”. Frankly, I have not heard of this until few years back when I sent my baby to the vet. The nurse put the word ‘terrapin’ under the ‘pet’s name’ column. Hey! My baby does have a name ok! :O

Anyway, a terrapin “splits its time between land and water, with food sources both on land and water”. It is confusing to me as some people called the most common species of turtles sold as pet, the Red Eared Sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans), as terrapins.

My beautiful babies…Toto, piggy-backing on Mei Mei during happier times
together…wondering if they are actually terrapins or turtles..
.This site
says Red ear sliders are turtles 

I remembered reading on some books that the difference lies whether it is American or British English used, so it is kinda interchangeable…can’t remember which is which so did some research and found this explanation on Wiki, which confirmed that I remembered correctly what I read:

“Precisely how these alternative names are used, depends on the type of English being used. British English normally describes these reptiles as turtles if they live in the sea; terrapin if they live in fresh or brackish water (with the exception of Fly River Turtle, also known as Pig-nosed Turtle). American English tends to use the word turtle for all freshwater species, as well as for certain land-dwelling species (eg box turtles). Oceanic species are usually referred to as sea turtles. The name terrapin is typically reserved only for the brackish water Diamondback terrapin. Australian English uses turtle for both the marine and freshwater species…”

Another site also mentioned the same thing, that “the difference between turtles and terrapins is highly debated, and in America any chelonian (shelled reptile) that’s not a tortoise is called a turtle “. According to Wiki, “a terrapin is a specific species of turtle, the Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) that lives in brackish water.”

A sign at the zoo explaining the differences but also mentioned that “some
people use the term ‘turtles’ for ‘terrapins’ as well”

So now you have a clearer idea of the differences between ‘turtles’, ‘tortoises’ and ‘terrapins’? 8)

PS: Itchyfingers congratulate the Singapore first women team to successfully scale Mount Everest! Their pace might be slow in taking five long years to prepare, train and raise fund, but like turtles and tortoises, they are slow and steady and displayed great courage and determination in completing the personal challenge against all odd!

Also see related posts:
> Changing Colours – Mistaken Identities #2
> Living in Cold Blood – Mistaken Identities #1
> Snake Tales 
> Life in the Mountain – Fraser’s Hill, Malaysia trip #4


Changing Colours – Mistaken Identities #2

May 20, 2009 at 3:34 pm | Posted in itchy mouth | 2 Comments
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So we have people mistaking the native and common Malayan Water Monitor Lizards for something rare or exotic and do not live in this tiny island. We also have people mistaking some smaller reptiles for similiarly exotic species too. Itchyfingers think that some explanation for this may be because people living in urban cities do not spend enough time to be with nature, so they do not have the opportunities to discover more about the flora and fauna. They are also more familiar with non-native species as they see more of these from documentaries.

One of the most common smaller lizards we have in the wild is the Changeable Lizard (Calotes versicolor).

“Huh? The ‘change-the-what’?” “Orrrr….you mean变色龙?” (literally ‘changing colour dragon’, or the Chameleon) Some people have asked, and I have heard parents teaching that to their children. Er, and we also heard parents pronouncing it as “cha-mer-long” when it should have been “ke-mee-lien“… :O

No. Changeable Lizards are NOT Chameleons. Yes, they do change their colours for camouflaging purposes but they are not the Chameleons. They should not be mistaken as the Chameleons as they look totally different!

A video still shot of a cute baby Chameleon from the famous Chatuchak
weekend market in Bangkok. It is illegal to keep Chameleons as pet in
Singapore so do not attempt to bring in one!

The most distinctive features of the Chameleon must be the eyes, feet and the tongue. The eyes are more protruded and each eye is capable of rotating and focusing separately to observe different objects simultaneously, giving them a 360 degree vision around the body. The feet, on first glance, look like there were only two toes. But a closer look shows that each foot has five toes with sharp claws that are fused into a group of two and a group of three, allowing Chameleons to grip tightly to narrow branches. Their long tongues can be extended out of the mouth rapidly for their insect prey. Size varies according to different species.

The Changeable Lizard is a small lizard of body length about 10 cm, with the tail they can measure more than 30 cm long. They are usually a dull brown, grey or olive with speckles or bands.

During the breeding season, the male’s head and shoulder turn bright
orange to crimson and the throat changes to black

This male Changeable Lizard has an unusual short stumped tail,
maybe due to fights or accidents..?

They are related to iguanas (which are not found here!) and they do not drop their tails. Usually they curl their long tail over the  head like this picture here. The Changeable Lizards are not native to Singapore. Rather, they were an introduced species in the 1980s.

As with most other introduced and non-native animal or plant species, the presence of the alien Changeable Lizard has threatened the survival of the native Green-crested Lizard (Bronchocela cristatella). Er, sounds like the case for human too…hahahah… 8)

The tail of the Green-crested Lizard can be as long as three times the reptile’s
body length! Total length can go to 57 cm! So to take its picture, you
got to have it small to accommodate the whole tail… :p

Otherwise, take a nice portrait of the Green-crested Lizard in its beautiful
green coat…the huge black eye-ring and red eyes are very prominent

Itchyfingers didn’t know that this lizard also has the ability to change colour
until recently when we saw one lizard with a tinge of brown on one of its
forelegs. The next moment when we peeped into the binoculars again,
its head had turned into a shade of brown too, before it scurried into the
thick vegetation and out of our sight…

Another commonly seen lizard in our gardens and parks is this small little one with the capability to glide. They are sometimes called the flying lizards as they look like they are flying from tree to tree… :p

This should be the male Common Gliding Lizard (Draco sumatranus),
with the triangular, bright yellow gular flag under the throat area. The males
flash this flap to attract females during breeding season. For females it is
much smaller and is blue flecked with black

The Dracos are small lizards with a body length about 10 cm, and can measure up to 20 cm with its tail. It is very exciting whenever you catch it in ‘flight’. I had two close encounter with the lizard while jogging along the canal. A dark shadow flew very close past me and landed on the nearest branch! Though tiny, it can glide very long distance. The secret lies in its six to seven pairs of ribs which are much longer than others. These ribs are covered by a large skin membrane that is folded like a fan. When the lizard glides, it spreads out its ribs foward, forming a gliding surface. There are a few species of these flying lizards in Singapore.

So you see, these little reptiles all look significantly different from one another, and certainly do not bear any resemblance to the more famous Chameleons. They are all fairly common in our parks and gardens, and it is especially easy to spot one or two under the mid-morning sun basking on trees, though it is now harder to find the Green-crested Lizards. 😦

Also see related posts:
> Living in Cold Blood – Mistaken Identities #1
> Snake Tales

Living in Cold Blood – Mistaken Identities #1

May 16, 2009 at 11:01 pm | Posted in itchy mouth | 4 Comments
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A name, is like an identity to a person, a place or an object. Itchyfingers always feel very irritated whenever people get our names misspelt or mispronounced despite numerous rounds of clarification. We dun have very complicated or tough-to-pronounce names, and they are also kinda common chinese names. But somehow some people seemed to have problems with them. I even had a colleague, after months of working together, mispronounced my name to clients. 

If animals have a voice and we could understand it, I think some of the animals found locally must be equally irritated by their frequently mistaken identities. They must be wondering how can human call them by so many other names when they all look so different. Some of them don’t even live here!

One of those frequently mistaken animals is this large greyish reptile found very commonly in habitats near water like the mangroves and parks in Singapore.

Did I hear someone say “crocodile”? Yes! Unbelievable but this is the commonly
mistaken identity for this reptile, one of the largest lizards in the world. 
This is actually the Malayan Water Monitor Lizard (Varanus salvator)

Adult Malayan Water Monitor Lizards can grow to over 2m long. Their diet varies from tiny insects to crabs, molluscs, snakes, fish, birds, rodents and other smaller animals, and they are particularly fond of carrion. They are great swimmers and climbers, and are capable of running at fast speed too. Like all cold-blooded reptiles, they like to bask under the hot sun. They can give a nasty bite and a strong whip with their powerful tail but usually they are more wary of human, so many times when we see them, they would quickly run and hide themselves. 

A juvenile Malayan Water Monitor Lizard sunbathing

If you look at the Monitor Lizard, you will notice they have the habit of sticking out their blue forked tongue, just like a snake. Now, just since when did you see that happening to a crocodile?!? If you have not seen a real crocodile, surely you have seen many of them appearing as logos? Like the one selling colourful light-weight shoes and the two apparel companies from different parts of the world using a crocodile as logo but facing different directions. None has a tongue sticking out but they have the crocodile opening the mouth big to show the row of sharp teeth and they also have bony scutes on the back.

I guess many people mistook the Malayan Water Monitor Lizard for the Crocodile for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they see these warning signs around places like Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserves so they presume that whatever they see that look remotely like what they see on the sign, ah..that would be it – a Crocodile!

Watch it! Cros around! See…no tongue sticking out… :p

Itchyfingers only spotted wild Estuarine Crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus)
twice. This guy was lying motionlessly and you would easily dismiss it as
a large piece of log in the water… 

But look closer…

Even for the crocodiles, there are other similiar looking ones to confuse you…
this friendly sign at the zoo shows the difference lie in the snout…so for the
crocodile, you will need to look out for a fourth tooth on each side of the
lower jaw when the mouth is shut…er…a bit tough hor…hahahah

The second reason could be people may not have heard of the Water Monitor Lizard before. Afterall, lizards to most people should be as small as those found in our besides calling the monitor lizards as crocodiles, many people also proudly pointed to their friends or children their rare sighting of the Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis)…. :O

A Komodo Dragon from the zoo…It is the largest lizard in the world, growing
to an average length of 2 to 3 metres and weighing around 70 kilograms 

What they should have known before exclaiming that is this: Komodos are only found in the Indonesian islands of Komodo, Rintja, Padar and Flores. The only Komodos we have are from the zoo. 

Then there are also other people who mistook the monitor lizard for yet another more famous reptile – the Iguana. But like the Komodos, Iguanas are not native. Instead, they are from Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean. No doubt there was sighting of escapee iguana from the illegal pet trade, but it is very very rare and of course, an iguana certainly looks completely different from a monitor lizard!

An Iguana from the zoo. Iguanas have a row of spines running down their
back to their tail, and a third “eye” on their head. This eye is known as the 
parietal eye, visible as a pale scale on the top of the head. Behind their neck 
are small scales which resemble spikes, known as tuberculate scales.
They also have a large round scale on their cheek known as a subtympanic shield

I think if you mistook the Malayan Water Monitor Lizard for this other lizard, it is more excusable cos they look more similiar…

This is the Clouded Monitor Lizard (Varanus bengalensis nebulosus).
It is a medium-sized lizard. Size of up to 1.5m is rare. The most distinctive
difference between the two lizard is the position of the nostril. In the
Clouded Monitor Lizard, the nostril lies mid way between the eye and the snout 

The Clouded Monitor Lizard’s colouration comprises yellow spots on a brown-grey base

Now compare to that of the Malayan Water Monitor Lizard. Notice the nostril
is positioned further towards the snout, making it easier for breathing when
it is swimming

So next time when you see a large swimming reptile in your canal or a tongue-sticking reptile doing sunbathing, don’t be too quick to call it names. Look carefully first! 😀 And for a cute and fun account of the Crocodile’s mistaken identity, do see here. :p

Also see related posts
> Snake Tales 

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