The two-headed Roman god Janus has found his namesake in a two-headed Greek tortoise at the Museum of Natural History in Geneva, Switzerland.
Janus the reptilian hatched on Sept. 3, 1997, and her chances of survival in the wild would be slim to none, as her two heads make her more vulnerable and less mobile than single-headed tortoises. But in the museum, with constant care and cuddles, this remarkable tortoise has lived to an incredible 22 years, a record for two-headed creatures.
Now, the museum is getting ready to celebrate her 23rd birthday, and Janus is looking in fine form.
Janus was born from a tortoise egg that was donated to the museum and hatched there. When she was born with two heads, the staff weren’t optimistic about her chances for survival.
Andréas Schmitz, a herpetologist at the museum, told the Swiss channel RTS, “Janus can’t completely retract her head inside. If I were a predator, I could attack the two heads which are easily visible. That means in nature, there’s no chance or almost no chance, for these creatures to survive the first days or the first hours of their life.”
Another problem that the two heads pose is that each has its own brain. This means that deciding what to do and where to go can be problematic. Schmitz said that Janus has one head “that is slightly more dominant,” and when it comes to moving, the difficulty is if “there’s one head that wants to walk to the right and the other wants to walk to the left, there is conflicting information, and that means she doesn’t move at all.”
The museum no longer keeps live animals but makes an exception for two-headed Janus. “Taking care of living animals involves a lot of constraints,” Pierre-Henri Heizmann, the administrator of the museum, told Cult. “We put everything in place to keep her, above all to keep her healthy and give her all the necessary attention.”
Thankfully, in the museum, Janus has received 5-star treatment that has allowed her to live a much longer life than anyone would have expected for a two-headed creature. In addition to a UV light in her indoor enclosure, she receives different kinds of lettuce and berries to munch on. After the pandemic forced the museum to close to visitors, it was a perfect moment to upgrade Janus’s terrarium.
In summer 2020, Janus had access to the outdoors through a special open-air habitat on the roof of the museum’s research building. Nicolas Dumoulin, responsible for security and maintenance, explained to Cult that when the temperatures are above 20 to 23 degrees Celsius (68 to 73 degrees Fahrenheit), Janus can enjoy her outdoor space and get the UV and vitamin D she needs.
Every day, Janus also gets a bath to keep her tortoiseshell clean and free of dangerous fungi. The water needs to be warm, between 26 and 30 degrees Celsius (78.8 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit). One of Janus’s three keepers, Angelica Bourdoin, said that Janus is so relaxed during bathtime that “she stretches out [her legs] and not only does she stretch out, she falls asleep.”
Despite all their care, the museum has to think carefully about the design of Janus’s habitat as the genetic mutation responsible for her two heads also seems to have had some effects on her shell. “The shell is definitely deformed,” Andreas Schmitz told RTS. “It’s not perfectly round like other Greek tortoises.” This means that if Janus ever were to fall over on her back, she wouldn’t be able to turn over by herself.
What is certain is that whatever Janus’s new enclosure is like, it will remain one of the museum’s star attractions as visitors flock to see this two-headed wonder.
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