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A Pregnant Tortoise Met A Very Unlucky End At Pompeii

The tortoise was seeking refuge beneath a building, but peaceful times were not ahead. 

author

Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockJun 27 2022, 15:27 UTC
A pregnant tortoise found at Pompeii.
These shelled remains were found during excavations of one of Pompeii's great bathhouses. Image credit: Archaeological Park of Pompeii

Just a few years before the infamous eruption of Mount Vesuvius, a pregnant tortoise found itself in its own sticky situation. Among the ruins of Pompeii, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a pregnant tortoise that became squished beneath a house at some point after an earthquake that struck the Roman city in 62 CE, but before the devastating volcanic eruption in 79 CE.

The recent discovery was unearthed during the excavation of Pompeii’s Stabian baths, a complex of pools and spas that featured heated water, by a team from the Free University of Berlin, the University of Napoli L’Orientale, the University of Oxford, and the Pompeii Archeological Site

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Dating of the archeological layers shows that the small tortoise died during the reconstruction of the buildings that took place between the earthquake and the eruption, suggesting the pregnant reptile had entered the abandoned space to seek refuge.

Excavations of a tortoise at Pompeii.
Pompeii archaeologists working hard to unearth the shelled beauty. Image credit: Archaeological Park of Pompeii


Unfortunately, their plan didn’t work out too well. In the ruins of the quake-hit structure, archeologists discovered the cracked remains of an unusually small tortoise at a time just predating the 79 CE eruption.

“Evidently, not all the houses were rebuilt and areas, even the central ones of the city were little frequented, so much so that they became the habitat of wild animals; at the same time, the expansion of the baths is a testament to the great confidence with which Pompeii started again after the earthquake, only to be crushed in a single day in 79 CE,” Gabriel Zuchtriegel, Director General of the Parco Archeologico Pompei, said in a statement

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Mature females of this species typically have a shell that measures more than 20 centimeters (~8 inches), but this individual’s shell was a mere 14 centimeters (5.5 inches) in diameter. Despite its small stature, the tortoise was pregnant, bearing a single egg that had yet to be laid. Tortoises typically lay one to six eggs in a clutch. However, if nesting conditions aren’t just right, they have the power to retain their eggs for future years. 

Unbeknownst to the tortoise, better days were not ahead. Even if they had survived this period of refuge, Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, unleashing a deadly firestorm of searing hot ash and volcanic debris onto the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. 

The final day of Pompeii has gone down in history and inspired countless scientific studies that have explored the city’s vibrant past and its grueling end. The latest discovery isn't the first tortoise discovered here, but their small tale has already added to the grand story of Pompeii. 

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“The tortoise adds a piece to this mosaic of relationships between culture and nature, community, and environment that represent the history of ancient Pompeii,” said Zuchtriegel.


natureNaturenatureanimals
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  • Paleontology,

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