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Patrick Springer, Published May 28 2011

Tortoise a stranger in strange land

LaMOURE, N.D. – The African sulcata tortoise that turned up on the edge of a field on Ben Nelson’s farm near here was a long way from home.

Nelson spotted the tortoise, which he first thought was a large snapping turtle – “There’s some big ones in this area” – in a line of debris left by the receding James River. But as he was driving past, he decided to return to investigate. Its distinct shell, colorful and with fluted ridges, made clear this was no snapper.

“It’s really quite beautiful,” he said.

Beautiful but also quite dead. Nonetheless, Nelson put it in the back of his pickup, thinking it might just end up on a den wall next to some deer antlers.

Calls to North Dakota Game and Fish, among other places, and queries of neighbors failed to identify the unknown amphibian.

“Everyone was impressed, but they didn’t know what it was,” he said.

Later, after researching tortoises on the Internet, Nelson thought he might have found a tortoise native to the Galapagos Islands. His sister, a school teacher, convinced him that it probably was an African sulcata tortoise, popular as a pet. The obvious question: How did it end up last week in Nelson’s field? Undoubtedly, it had somehow gotten into the flooding James River earlier this spring.

But how did a tortoise native to sub-Saharan Africa and the grasslands of the Sahel get in the James?

They’re questions Nelson still cannot answer, but he presumes the tortoise is a wayward pet. Large African sulcata tortoises can fetch $1,000, so he doubts a disenchanted owner simply let the thing go.

The tortoises can grow to be 80 to 100 pounds or more and burrow underground for months at a time to escape extreme heat and drought, according to peteducation.

com. Owners keeping them indoors are told not to allow the temperature to drop below 70 degrees, and if they are kept outdoors, they should be in a heated environment.

Nelson plans to varnish the shell and mount it on the wall of an old farmhouse that his college-aged sons use during the summers.

“They kind of ‘bach’ it out there,” he said, adding that the décor is rustic and just the right kind of place for a colorful tortoise shell.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522