Uncovering the Truth

In human medicine, when there is an unknown cause of death, it is called an autopsy. In the animal world, when this happens, we call it a necropsy. In veterinary medicine, necropsies, not only give us a cause of death, but also teach us what we can improve for the health and well-being of similar patients. I had the recent opportunity to perform a necropsy on a deceased endangered Spider Tortoise for a local conservation organization, called the Turtle Room. This is an uncommon opportunity. For this organization, knowing the cause of death of this endangered tortoise would help the other individuals being raised for conservation purposes to further flourish in their habitats.


The Spider Tortoise, Pyxis arachnoides, is a critically endangered tortoise from the island of Madagascar. Madagascar is a biodiversity hot spot with some of the most unique fauna and flora in the world! Unfortunately, several factors including collection for the pet trade and slash and burn agriculture threaten many Malagasy species. The Spider Tortoise is at risk of extinction thanks to these activities. Some estimates show this species being lost within the next few decades. Conservation organizations, like the Turtle Room, aim to prevent this from occurring.


The necropsy on this Spider Tortoise revealed a very fatty liver and a dark green leafy substance in the digestive tract. A liver with high fat content would normally be cause for serious concern, but in this case, it is not. Many species undergo a dormancy period and will store fat in the liver during this time. The Spider Tortoise goes through a 6 month dormancy period, called brumation, every year making this fatty liver finding normal in this species. The greens in the stomach were darker than those being fed. A decorative plant in the enclosure may have been exposed to unknown pesticides and was not intended for consumption.  In small quantities, this plant may not have been toxic, but in large quantities, it can be deadly. The plant was removed from the tortoise habitat preventing further deaths to other individuals.

A curator at the Zoo Knoxville, in Knoxville Tennessee, is one of the world’s leading experts in Malagasy tortoises and confirmed these necropsy findings.

For more information on The Turtle Room and their inspiring conservation efforts, please click here.

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