2 STASHED IDEAS
What is a tortoise anyway? Is it just a fancy way to say “turtle”? Well, actually, there’s a meaningful difference between tortoises and other turtles. All tortoises are in fact turtles—that is, they belong to the order Testudines or Chelonia, reptiles having bodies encased in a bony shell—but not all turtles are tortoises. If tortoises are turtles, why not just call all turtlelike creatures “turtle”? Because if the animal you’re referring to is a tortoise, some wise guy is going to correct you every time.
The most important thing to remember about tortoises is that they are exclusively land creatures. They live in a variety of habitats, from deserts to wet tropical forests. (Unlike most sea turtles, which take to land only when they are laying eggs, tortoises don’t have much to do with water other than drinking it and occasionally bathing in it.) However, not all land turtles are tortoises; thus, box turtles and wood turtles have been called tortoises, though they are not considered tortoises today. But that’s a matter for another day.
One way to further distinguish tortoises from other turtles is to look for certain anatomical features. The testudinids (their family is Testudinidae) are easily recognized because all share a unique hind-limb anatomy made up of elephantine (or columnar) hind limbs and hind feet. Their forelimbs are not flipperlike, and their hind feet are not webbed. Each digit in their forefeet and hind feet contains two or fewer phalanges. Finally, if you can’t see their legs, try feeding them meat. Tortoises are generally vegetarians, while other turtles are omnivorous.
It’s easy to understand why people confuse bison and buffalo. Both are large, horned, oxlike animals of the Bovidae family. There are two kinds of bison, the American bison and the European bison, and two forms of buffalo, water buffalo and Cape buffalo . However, it’s not difficult to distinguish between them, especially if you focus on the three H’s: home, hump, and horns.
Contrary to the song “Home on the Range,” buffalo do not roam in the American West. Instead, they are indigenous to South Asia (water buffalo) and Africa (Cape buffalo), while bison are found in North America and parts of Europe. Despite being a misnomer—one often attributed to confused explorers—buffalo remains commonly used when referring to American bison, thus adding to the confusion.
Another major difference is the presence of a hump. Bison have one at the shoulders while buffalo don’t. The hump allows the bison’s head to function as a plow, sweeping away drifts of snow in the winter. The next telltale sign concerns the horns. Buffalo tend to have large horns—some have reached more than 6 feet (1.8 meters)—with very pronounced arcs. The horns of bison, however, are much shorter and sharper. And, if you want to throw a B into the mix, you can check for a beard. Bison are the hipsters of the two animals, sporting thick beards. Buffalo are beardless.
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