Earlier this Summer on July 5, a baby spider tortoise (Pyxis a. arachnoides) was found at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Both the creature’s initial birth and hatching underneath a plant pot went unnoticed by zoo staff, until a routine inspection led to its surprise discovery in the species’ enclosure.
The details of spider tortoise birth and life cycles are shrouded with mystery. It has been five years since the last successful hatching of the species, due to the difficulty of breeding the species. It is believed that spider tortoises search for mates during wet seasons, and lay eggs with long incubation cycles. However, demand for charcoal in their native region, as well as the introduction of nonnative plant species has severely shrunk the spider tortoise’s already narrow territory.
The species has lost over 40% of its small wild habitat in Southwestern Madagascar, and unregulated habitat fragmentation and destruction have accelerated this process further. One of only two species in the genus Pyxis, the spider tortoise is also notable for its small 6-inch size and theoretically long lifespan of 70 years. However, the spider tortoise’s unique features are also a factor in its decline, as smugglers capture and kill the species for the illegal pet keeping trade, for their expensive and intricate shells, and for their meat.
Thus, the spider tortoise’s successful secret birth has come as a pleasant surprise to the National Zoo. “The arrival of the Zoo’s ‘surprise’ spider tortoise hatchling is reason to be optimistic that we can change their future on this planet for the better,” wrote National Zoo assistant curator Matt Evans.