Bad Hair Day, Meet Bad Belly Button Day

There’s a new arrival at the zoo. I wanted to blog about it sooner, but I couldn’t. I’ll explain in just a bit. You remember Short Stack, the pancake tortoise that hatched in February?

Baby Pancake Tortoise

Baby Pancake Tortoise

The zoo has two pairs of pancake tortoises. Both laid eggs this winter that were intact and able to be incubated. This species is apparently a little tricky to incubate, and there can be as much as 40 days’ variation in hatch-times, unlike mammal gestation which can often be narrowed down to a two day window. A couple of weeks ago, Short Stack was joined by our second pancake hatching.

Each morning, keepers check the eggs in the incubator for signs if hatching, also known as pipping. The assistant curator knows how much I love this species, so he sent me an email to let me know the little critter was making its way into the world. I missed his email. Because I was already at the zoo. I got pictures. Crazy pictures.

Remember this turtle from last year?

The curve of the carapace (top shell) is incredible, but check out the wrinkles in the plastron (bottom shell)! I love how it has its little nose pulled in. Its face reminds me of Homer Simpson. And those bumpy things on either side are its legs.

See how its shell is folded over like a little burrito?

And how after a few days it looked like this?

It's a Spiny Hill turtle. It took it a couple of days to flatten out.

It’s a Spiny Hill turtle. It took it a couple of days to flatten out.

I thought all flat shelled tortoises and turtles developed in the egg the same way, with the sides folded down. Not Pancake tortoises! They actually develop rolled front to back. Look at how the baby flattens out over a few days’ time.

The reason it has taken so long to blog about this guy is because I don’t write about them until they have been accessioned (added) into the collection. And they can’t be accessioned without complete measurements of their shell. It’s hard to measure something that has been folded up like origami. It normally takes a couple of days for a tortoise to unfold completely. It took this guy about a week before it was flat enough to measure!

Day 5. Still a little wrinkled.

Day 5. Still a little wrinkled.

And here he is about two weeks after hatching, looking all ironed out. Finally.

.

I call him Squashy.

*** Nancy over at Not Quite Old asked why tortoises have a belly button at all. It was such a good question that I thought I’d answer it for those who are new to reptiles. Animals that develop in an egg are fed during their incubation by their yolk. They are attached to that yolk by an umbilical cord. After they emerge from the egg, the umbilicus closes. Sometimes that process takes a few days, sometimes traces can be seen a year later, but at that point it is nothing more than a mark on the shell.

Awakenings

This is my favorite time of year in the reptile department of my zoo. Spring is here, and that means one thing. When I come in on Wednesdays, I’m often greeted by sights like this:

(click on them to enlarge)

There are four babies hatching here. See them?

There are four babies hatching here. See them?

Pipping

How about now?

 

In this box, we have two different subspecies of Madagascan spider tortoise; Pyxis arachnoides arachnoides and Pyxis arachnoides brygooi. I can tell the difference from here. I’ll show you how.

P.a. brygooi like to burrow. They hatch, they burrow. P. a. arachnoides hang around on top of the substrate.

P.a. brygooi like to burrow. They hatch, they burrow. P. a. arachnoides hang around on top of the substrate.

These babies are all genetically pretty valuable, as both species are critically endangered in their native Madagascar. Any successful hatching is significant, but sometimes some offspring are even more valuable to the program.

There’s someone I want to you meet, but allow me just a moment to tell you its story. When animals are taken out of the wild and reproduce, that next generation of offspring is known as F1. It’s not unusual for animals to reproduce in captivity after being removed from the wild. Tortoises, rhinos, cheetah, elephants. The real trick is in getting an F2, that next generation, one that is truly captive bred. F1 and F2. Sounds like a series of astromech droids, doesn’t it?

Now allow me to introduce you to our very first F2 Common Spider Tortoise.

Sleeping in its egg.

Sleeping in its egg.

A couple of days later, it emerged completely after having absorbed the last remaining bit of yolk. And lest we forget the gratuitous belly button shot:

It may take a few weeks for its umbilicus to disappear completely. Currently there are tiny wrinkles around its belly button where it is closing up.

It may take a few weeks for its umbilicus to disappear completely. Currently there are tiny wrinkles around its belly button where it is closing up.

 

It’s roughly the size of a quarter, the very first offspring of both parents. There are very few, if any, other F2 of this type anywhere in the world. I am so proud of my zoo and their dedicated staff for what they have done to perpetuate this species! Well done, Michael!

Advantages to Keeping Reptiles

1) No one takes your ice cream. Because it’s resting on a bag of frozen rats.

2) You have a use for all of those college text books. 

.

The more weighty the tome, the better. I recommend something other than the Twilight series. Not only are they rather lightweight in a literary sense, trade paperbacks aren’t heavy enough to hold a rosy boa in its cage.

.

3) Overnight visitors are rare. Buy one snake, and suddenly all the out-of-town family is piling into a hotel. And they invite you to swim in the pool. Double score!

4) All the neighborhood kids think that you’re the coolest parent in the entire world. What kid doesn’t want to share a room with a python?

5) Your bad-itude level increases exponentially. People will not mess with you when they hear the words “Yeah, I’ve got to go home and feed my boa.” There is no need to add that said boa is five inches long.

BIG, SCARY BOA! Do not be messing with me.

There may be a few disadvantages, too.

1) Cages can’t be kept too near a window. Not because of drafts, but because their red night bulbs give the neighbors (and the cops) the wrong idea.

2) It’s extra sad to open the freezer and realize the only thing you have to eat is a bag of rats.

3) It’s hard to find a house-sitter. 

4) Reptiles have no respect for the saying “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” 

5) People who live in the same house don’t appreciate nearly drinking a mouse that is thawing in their favorite cup. There might be an entire blog post on this particular topic. Sorry, sweetie! I’ll try to remember to quit using your cup!

Missing the Forest Completely. And Finding It Again.

We went to the mountains this weekend. Peak leaf season has passed, but it was still incredibly beautiful. Peaceful, no. We were in the company of about 10,000 other people, all trying to take advantage of what may be the last warm day of fall.

But while other folks were captivated by this:

A world so big

my heart was captured by this:

So tiny. So precious.

We discovered this very tiny white footed mouse at a very tiny church, which makes him a church mouse, I suppose. His back left foot is injured and useless. He wasn’t as fast as he should be, or as coordinated. But he was giving it a go. And people were rooting for him. Dozens of people who had previously been driving in their own private little bubbles, honking their horns at one another, blocking the entire road for minutes at a time so they could take the perfect picture, came together for this little mouse.

I attempted to herd the little guy under a ledge where he would be safe from a misplaced step. As he scampered away from me, a woman noticed my efforts. He  paused for a moment in the grass, and she squatted beside him to safeguard his rest. He dashed toward another patch of grass out in the open, and someone else gently encouraged him back to safety. Each person whose awareness he touched became a part of the dance.

We’re not fools. None of us believed for a moment that he would even survive the day. He was too injured, too inexperienced to even be afraid of people, and his natural curiosity was bound to lead him in the path of an unsuspecting boot. His insistence on staying in the open made him easy pickings for any predator. We all knew the eventual end. But not on our watch, friends. As long as there were people to stand guard for him, we would.

When it was time for my family to leave the area, there was a new team in place, sharing a common goal, if only for a few minutes.

For a size comparison, that’s the Padawan’s sneaker.

Sometimes I miss the little things. I didn’t this time, and I am glad. Sometimes the little stuff is but a small reflection of a much, much bigger picture. In a world where I sometimes struggle with my significance in the grand scheme, Matthew 10:29-31 takes on a whole new meaning.

.

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows (Matthew 10:29-31)

Nature Is Cruel

I love homegrown tomatoes.I can’t grow tomatoes. I can clone a carrot, but I cannot raise my own tomatoes to save my life. Consider this post. I was close, but when it comes to vegetables, close doesn’t cut it. Those babies fell off the vine the week before Christmas. I was sad.

This year I knew I couldn’t handle heartbreak yet again. I vowed never to plant another tomato as long as I live. And then this happened. Tomato plants everywhere. I yanked most of them up out of righteous indignation, but I let two live. Because their leaves smell good.

They toyed with me, those evil little plants. One of them even set blooms at the beginning of September, but I knew they were just trying to yank my chain, to get me to believe again so that they could squash my hopes like a rotten tomato on a superhighway. All of the blooms withered and died within a couple of weeks. I knew they would. I didn’t care. I’d go out every couple of days and thumb my nose at them. And smell their leaves. They yellowed. I ignored them, some days completely forgetting that they were there.

So here’s what I found yesterday.

My camera won’t even focus on it, tells me that it’s nothing special. Probably just some round green fungus. That will kill us in our sleep or something.

.

And it’s supposed to frost tonight. I’ll be in my trailer.

 

Friday In the Bog

Okay, maybe not IN the bog, but definitely with the baby bog turtles at my zoo.

Remember the bright yellow neck rings? Here’s why they’re such good camouflage.

They look just like the play of light on the water, don’t they?

 

Ever wonder what bog turtles eat? A little bit of everything, really. At this stage, they love insects. What’s wrong with this picture?!

To give you an idea of how tiny these turtle hatchlings are, that’s a cricket on the left.

 

How in the world can a turtle so small eat something so large? Turns out, quite easily.

 

Excuse the shaky bit of film work at the end of the video. I’ve tried to trim it, but the site isn’t cooperating.

Have a great weekend! Buckle your seat belts and prepare for the cute. Next week, I’ll share what I’ve been up to.

Something to Think About.

When I went outside the other day, I saw this spider.

It looks like it’s suspended from nothing!

It’s about the size of a quarter with its legs extended, which by local spider standards, is pretty big. Compared to humans, it’s tiny and insignificant.

Here’s a view at night. What do you notice? Besides the fact that I don’t have a great camera, I mean.

Seriously. 25 feet. What a determined little critter!

.

This spider has created a little haven for itself, sheltered by the tree next to it, hidden from most predators. It’s the perfect spot. I wouldn’t have even known it was there if I hadn’t seen it against the blue sky. No telling how long it had been there before I saw it.

Can you imagine being one inch long and having 25 feet of empty space between you and your goal? I can’t. This guy didn’t stop and think “It will be nearly impossible to achieve my goal, so I won’t even try.” Mostly because it doesn’t have a brain, so it can’t actually process complex (or even simple) thoughts. It just has ganglia that give it feedback from the environment. That’s neither here nor there. It’s still an amazing feat.

It’s humbling. There are a couple of ways to look at the indefatigable determination of this little critter.

Nothing is impossible if we just try.

Spiders could be anywhere. Even hanging over your head right now. Watching you.

Makes you think, doesn’t it.

My Lucky Day!

Tortoise day was even better than usual this week. Remember the baby bog turtles? They’ve been released into the indoor enclosure that will be their home for the next year or so. They’re tiny. We’re talking the size of a quarter. And they’re shy. When you’re that small, the list of predators that can eat you is fairly long, so they stay hidden. In the wild, they hide for years. I knew it would likely be Christmas before I caught a glimpse of them again, so imagine my surprise when I looked in their enclosure and saw this:

Look at that!

Right there in the open, too! What? You don’t see it? Hmm. How about now?

They blend right in. Every drop of water has a highlight exactly like that neck ring!

And then I got even luckier, and I saw the other one, too!

Don’t tell me you can’t see it!

Shall we zoom in?

You can see it now, right?

Still not sure? Let’s get really close…

I love their serious little faces.

If you’re a baby tortoise fan, be sure to tune in tomorrow. I’ve got some pics to share of some other favorites, and maybe another belly button shot.

Another Bonus Tortoise Day!

I start my new job today. I’m nervous and excited, and I can’t wait to tell you all about it. This morning, I’ll share some favorite Tortoise Day photos. These are juvenile flattail tortoises, a species of dwarf tortoise from Madagascar. My zoo’s breeding program has been pretty successful, which is exciting since this species endangered in the wild. Flattails are mushroom specialists, but they also enjoy blooms off of certain plants when they can get them.

 

It looks so tasty, I’m almost tempted to try it. Almost.

Have a great day!

Test Your Eyes

If you’ve been with me any length of time, you know how proud I am of my zoo. If you’re  new reader, the easiest way to catch up is to Google “tortoise belly button.” No, for real. You’ll even see some of my images right there on the first page. Those are my current contribution to society. I am so proud to be famous for something. It beats being infamous for anything. Anywho (which is a word, according to Urban Dictionary, and may be the only entry that has no inappropriate connotation. I don’t think. Let me double-check.), back to the zoo.

One mark of a great zoo is that they not only take excellent care of the animals in their collection, but they also support and participate in relevant conservation projects outside their own facility. I can easily say that my zoo does just that.

My zoo’s reptile department has been involved in bog turtle conservation and research for over 20 years. The late Director pioneered the project, and it’s still going strong. They’ve discovered some amazing things over their years of captive breeding and re-release. For one, bog turtle hatchlings are tiny, and they grow so slowly that it takes them 10 year to venture forth from their hiding places to search for a mate. When I say hatchlings are tiny, I do mean tiny.  Remember these little babies? They are giants compared to baby bog turtles. Don’t believe me?

Do you see it?

Look at how small the eggs are compared to my finger tips. Oh, wait. What else is in there?

How about now?

Look closely! You may already see it.

How about now?

Here’s the fun. There are TWO of them in here! See them? Larger than life.

They’re about the size of a June bug. Imagine traipsing around a bog looking for one of these! If you still can’t see both of them, here they are.

How cute are they?

For more information about the bog turtle project, visit The Nature Conservancy’s.  26 species of rare plants and animals call this nature preserve home. It’s such a great story about the great things that can be done in a teeny, tiny corner of the world.