Photo by David Berkowitz, Wikimedia Commons
In all of nature, the tortoise is one of the most unlikely animals to be featured in a poem about sex. Yes, of course they are sexually reproducing organisms, and therefore in order for reproduction to occur, there must be an act of sex, but…tortoises? One curious aspect of the tortoise mating system is that it includes vocalizations. And not just any vocalizations: emphatic, rhythmic, sometimes roaring, sometimes human-like sounds. For an animal as, well, quiet as a tortoise, these vocalizations are definitely interesting. And to DH Lawrence, inspiring.
I thought he was dumb,
I said he was dumb,
Yet I’ve heard him cry.
First faint scream,
Out of life’s unfathomable dawn,
Far off, so far, like a madness, under the horizon’s dawning rim,
Far, far off, far scream.
Tortoise in extremis.
The name “tortoise” generally refers to any land-dwelling, non-swimming member of the order Testudines (members of the order as a whole may be called “turtles”). All members of this order are characterized by a shell made of dermal bone that encases their organs and limb girdles (where the limbs attach to the trunk). The top part of the shell is called the carapace, the bottom part is the plastron, and the piece that connects the two is called the bridge. Though Testudines was once incredibly diverse, today only 260 species from 13 families remain.
“Chelonia” from Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur, 1904
Tortoises, the land-dwelling subgroup of turtles, belong to the family Testudinae. They range in size from a few centimeters to two meters, and are one of the the longest-lived animals in the world; some individuals have been known to survive more than 150 years. Their age can be estimated by the concentric rings on the carapace, though this is not a definitive method. Many species of tortoise are sexually dimorphic, which means that males and females have obvious physical (morphological) differences. Females tend to be slightly larger, and have shorter tails. In some species, females also have longer claws. Males often have longer tails, longer neck plates, and a plastron that is curved inward.
Which brings us to sex.
Male tortoise, cleaving behind the hovel-wall of that dense female,
Mounted and tense, spread-eagle, out-reaching out of the shell
Long neck, and long vulnerable limbs extruded, spread-eagle over her house-roof,
And the deep, secret, all-penetrating tail curved beneath her walls,
Reaching and gripping tense, more reaching anguish in uttermost tension
Till suddenly, in the spasm of coition, tupping like a jerking leap, and oh!
Opening its clenched face from his outstretched neck
And giving that fragile yell, that scream,
From his pink, cleft, old-man’s mouth,
In tortoise mating, the female is on the bottom. The curvature of the male’s plastron fits neatly over the female’s carapace, enabling them to achieve the proper intimacy. Female tortoises have what is called a cloaca, or vent, which is a single opening that serves both excretory and reproductive functions. Male tortoises also have cloacas, but within the cloaca is a hydraulic intromittent sexual organ, otherwise known as a penis. While tortoise penises are anatomically comparable (and evolutionarily convergent) to those of mammals, they can have dramatically different shapes and features. Some are pointed, some are flat, and some look like opening flowers. The penis is often disproportionately large (and by that I mean half the length of the plastron or more). Most likely these shapes and lengths have evolved in order to ensure genital contact with the female.
But what guides DH Lawrence’s poem is male tortoise vocalization during the act of mating. Tortoises rarely emit sounds, so when they do, it is meaningful. Most likely, these vocalizations are auditory signals to females. It is thought that producing these sounds is energetically costly to males, so males who can produce more calls may be of higher quality. In Hermann’s tortoises, females have been shown to respond to recordings of male calls, and to prefer higher-pitched and faster rates of calling. In marginated tortoises, male mating success is positively correlated with the number of calls emitted during mounting. So the ability to produce these calls is advantageous to males.
His scream, and his moment’s subsidence,
The moment of eternal silence,
Yet unreleased, and after the moment, the sudden, startling jerk of coition, and at once
The inexpressible faint yell —
And so on, till the last plasm of my body was melted back
To the primeval rudiments of life, and the secret.
So he tups, and screams
Time after time that frail, torn scream
After each jerk, the longish interval,
The tortoise eternity,
Agelong, reptilian persistence,
Heart-throb, slow heart-throb, persistent for the next spasm.
In “Tortoise Shout,” DH Lawrence recognizes something undeniably human in the call of the male tortoise. Strange as these creatures are, we share their reliance on sex, and more, the seeming enjoyment of the act. Lawrence hears the tortoise calling from the “horizon of life,” and it affirms his place in the universe by reminding him of our connection with all sexual beings.
Sex, which breaks up our integrity, our single inviolability, our deep silence
Tearing a cry from us.
Sex, which breaks us into voice, sets us calling across the deeps, calling, calling for the complement,
Singing, and calling, and singing again, being answered, having found.
Galeotti, Paolo et al. 2004. Female preference for fast-rate, high-pitched calls in Hermann’s tortoises Testudo hermanni. Behavioral Ecology 16(1): 301-308. Link.
Kelly, DA. 2004. Turtle and mammal penis designs are anatomically convergent. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 271 (Suppl 5), S293-S295. Link.
Lawrence, DH. “Tortoise Shout.” Read it here.
McCurry-Schmidt, Madeline. 2011. “How turtles do it.” Link.
Meylan, Peter. 2012. Testudines: Turtles, Tortoises, and Terrapins. Tree of Life Web Project. Link.
Niash, Darren. 2012. Terrifying sex organs of male turtles. Link.
Sacchi, Robert et al. 2003. Vocalizations and courtship intensity correlate with mounting success in marginated tortoises Testudo marginata. Behavioral Ecology & Sociobiology 55:95-102. Link.
Tortoise Calls: recordings by the California Turtle & Tortoise Club. Link.