Homopus signatus cafer
Size This tortoise species is regarded as one of the smallest terrestrial tortoises in the world and could easily fit into the palm of one's hand. Females, which are larger than males, reach 95 mm carapace length, while males grow to approximately 80 mm. Shell height for females is around 40 mm, while males reach 30 mm. Females (140 g) weigh up to twice as heavy as males (70 g).
Description The shell of this species is relatively flat and the shields on the carapace are rather smooth with large areolae. Five claws are found on the front feet, while the hind feet have four claws each. There are well-developed buttock tubercles on the skin between the hind feet and the tail. The background colour pattern of the carapace can vary from orange-brown to salmon-pink or red. Superimposed on this background is a pattern of fine small, black stipples and specks giving rise to a speckled appearance, hence the common name. The plastron or underside of the shell is usually ivory-grey to dark-brown.
Biology Very little is known about the life history of this species, and very few studies, if any, have been undertaken. These tortoises inhabit sandstone hills or koppies along the West Coast where they live and hide amongst and under rocks and rock slabs. Their cryptic colouration blends almost pefectly with their surroundings making it difficult for predators to detect them. They stay active throughout the year and may be seen wandering about, for example on sunny winter days. Almost nothing is known about this species' general biology and habits, but it can be assumed that it is related to that of its closest relative, the Namaqualand speckled padloper, apart from its diet perhaps. Single eggs for example may be laid during spring and early summer, and perhaps more than once per season.
Distribution This subspecies of tortoise is endemic to the Western Cape and occur at its most distinctive, West of the Cederberg Mountains, and from approximately Klawer in the North, southwards through Clanwilliam and Citrusdal towards Het Kruis and Piketberg, and westwards to Eland's Bay and Lambert's Bay.
Distribution in GCBC This species will primarily be found along the coastal areas between Lambert's Bay and Eland's Bay in the West, and it occurrence remains to be further explored in the Olifants River Mountains Northwest of the Piekenierskloof Pass towards Graafwater and eastwards to the Cederberg Wilderness area and along the Olifants River valley.
Conservation status Southern speckled padlopers are classified as Protected Wild Animals by the Nature Conservation Ordinance No. 19 of 1974 (as ammended in 2000) and may not be collected, transported, or possessed in, or imported into or exported from the Western Cape Province without special permission. They are listed in the latest South African Red Data Book for reptiles and amphibians as a “Restricted” species with a relatively small and restricted distribution range. They are listed in the international IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as “Lower Risk/near threatened” which means that if threats in their range continue to operate uncontrolled, they may become threatened. Because of their relatively specialised habitat requirements, local populations may be threatened by specific threats such as the clearing of land for agriculture or development, poor landuse management (overgrazing for example) or the collection for the pet trade. Similar to all other terrestrial tortoises, they are listed internationally in Appendix II of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES); legislation which regulates the international trade in these animals.
Threats Habitat destruction through mainly indiscriminate agricultural development and poor landuse practices and illegal collection for the pet trade threaten healthy populations throughout their range. Fire is not a threat for this species but they also fall prey to many natural predators such as baboons, jackal, mongoose, badgers and predatory birds. Domestic dogs also pose a threat.
Current studies This is another poorly studied tortoise species, but studies by workers of the University of the Western Cape, as part of a collaborative research programme with the Western Cape Nature Conservation Board are planned for the future. These studies enable conservation agencies to compile well-informed strategies to conserve healthy natural populations.