Wild Wednesday: Keratin, Scutes & Shells, Oh My!


Clockwise, from Top Left: My tortoise shell sunnies, Mordor (2 Views), Mordor selfie, All © Lucia Saldarriaga Photo. © Gigi Hadid for Vogue in tortoise shell sunnies 2018 Photo.


Mordor © Lucia Saldarriaga Photo



McQueen tortoise shell, Alexander McQueen Spring 2013, © Imaxtree Photo


For the past two weeks at work, we have had a visitor. Mordor (the turtle), is having his “staycation” in school while his human mom is on her own adult vacation. While I have certainly cared for my fare share of rescue animals, and pet sat for many furry and scaly family members of my friends, nothing compares to Mr. Mordor. He’s a charmer! I have to admit that my opinion may also be a bit biased, I’ve maintained a longtime love of the classic sartorial (synthetic) tortoise shell-rimmed glasses, shoes, necklaces and accessory trend. Could it get more glamorous than Alexander McQueen’s interpretation of a turtle shell corset from 2013?! Regardless, Mordor has shown he can strut on his own catwalk, he’s both fascinating, handsome (just look at those contrasting colors) and adorable!

To start, Mr. Mordor is already fourteen years old, meaning he’s waddling into his adolescence. Trust me…he can waddle, dig and move much faster than I anticipated.

His shell resembles the perfect shape and geometric patterns that form a hard protective barrier for this little guy. Up close, you can see the striations and grooves that form each section of Mordor’s shell. To the touch, the shell is neither slimy or slippery but feels solid and harder than your fingernail. Initially, I assumed that the turtle’s shell grew just so the turtle could seek shelter from danger (like a hermit crab). However, upon a little research, I learned a few new fun facts about turtles. According to Science Daily, the turtle shell (exterior) grows from its rib cage. So, unlike a hermit crab, the shell is a part of the turtle body and extends from the ribs and backbone. A turtle can’t just walk out of its shell and into a new one. According to Current Biology throughout turtle evolution, the shell evolved as an adaptation to make turtles expert burrowers and diggers (in addition to being a protective shield).

Each smaller piece or plate section that makes up the shell is called a scute. I like to think of the shell as one giant puzzle, and each scute is like a unique puzzle piece that fits together to make up the entire shell. These scutes are made up of keratin, which is the same durable and extremely tough structural protein that form hair follicles, horns, hooves, claws and some other animal shells.

Much like snakes, spiders, lizards, salamanders, frogs, insects and nematodes, turtles moult. Moulting means they shed their skin. For turtles, they shed their scutes as they grow. Since turtle shells are proportionate to the size of their bodies, the scutes will soften and fall off as larger and more size appropriate scutes grow underneath. It’s very similar to when a child loses their first few teeth and new (adult) teeth grow underneath.

While the children where I work have been fascinated with Mordor, I don’t advise getting a turtle as a pet for children, they’re pretty high maintenance and do require a lot of special care, and can live to be a hundred years old (that’s a lifelong commitment). Part of their care includes a heated terrarium, a lot more space than assumed and a special diet. While turtles are less cuddly than a cat or dog, Mr. Mordor has proven to be a dapper gent. He not only knows his name, but he also loves to dance. But, it was adorable watching the kids draw their our own turtle shells, learn about cold blooded animals and to watch them use their imaginations to play their own human turtle race in the grass. Full disclosure: Mordor, was not used during physical playtime (he was too busy keeping cool burying himself under a pile of leaves and dirt).

In the mornings, I call Mordor over (he usually sees me and slowly approaches) and feed him lettuce and cucumbers followed by shell scratches near the mid and hind end of his shell. Almost immediately, he begins to wiggle his tail and hind legs side to side (á la Ariana Grande and Niki Minaj Side to Side style dancing).

I call it the “Turtle Tango”.

Maybe Mordor has the answers to happy living, more fresh veggies and a lot more dancing throughout the day. I’m going to miss this little character!

*Cheers from the Atelier

P.S., if you really want to geek out, there’s a pretty cool 3-D model of the turtle fossil that displays the skeletal features, here.



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