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Age estimation in tortoises: an evaluation of methods for the spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca)

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posted on 2024-06-26, 10:40 authored by Sabina E. Vlad, Florina Stănescu, Dan Cogălniceanu

Age and growth-related parameters provide a better understanding of life-history adaptations and trade-offs and can be studied in the wild through capture-mark-recapture (CMR) or sclerochronology (i.e., skeletochronology and counting growth marks on hard structures). In chelonians, skeletochronology is limited to carcasses, CMR is limited by time and funding constraints, but counting shell growth annuli (SGA count) is a cheaper and faster alternative. A long-term CMR study in Testudo graeca from south-eastern Romania allowed us to compare the age estimated by the two sclerochronology methods using carcasses, and calibrate the results with data obtained from recaptured tortoises. We found that the accuracy of SGA counts significantly decreased with time (i.e., years between captures and older individuals). Skeletochronology showed the best results with long bones (i.e., ulna, radius, femur), but overall underestimated the age when compared to SGA counts; we obtained comparable results from these two methods in tortoises up to 17 years old. The oldest age estimated by skeletochronology alone was 28 years, 30 years by SGA counts, and 40 years by SGA counts when calibrated by CMR. The growth models using age estimations from both skeletochronology and SGA counts were similar, highlighting their usefulness in monitoring growth trajectories. Our study showed that while age estimation in tortoises is challenging, a combination of methods can improve its accuracy.

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