Work Excuse Number 637: Why I Was Late For Lunch

So, there was this 600lb tortoise sitting on the hose.

Thanks, buddy. I don't need to spread that hay or anything.

Thanks, buddy. I don’t need to spread that hay or anything.

Parked like a VW Beetle on the bale of hay I’m trying to spread.

Attaboy, pal.

Attaboy, pal.

I asked him to move. I asked nice. He said no.

"What you lookin' at?"

“What you lookin’ at?”

What could I do?

Incidentally, this is reason 1,234 why I love my job.

Good Morning, Zoo!

Most mornings, I am on the early shift. It’s my responsibility to open up our department and get us ready for the day. Every morning has its familiar faces and routines. Sometimes I have to stop what I am doing and take a moment to appreciate how lucky I am to spend my time with amazing animals.

Remember Al? He's a bit sleepy in the morning. That makes sense because he is essentially solar powered. He's most active once he has warmed up a bit.

Remember Al? He’s a bit sleepy in the morning. That makes sense because he is essentially solar powered. He’s most active once he has warmed up a bit.

Our outdoor turtle marsh bustles with activity on a warm spring morning.

A wood turtle peeks out from his night-time hiding place under the leaf litter.

A wood turtle peeks out from his night-time hiding place under the leaf litter.

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An eastern box turtle hits the snooze button in her leafy bed.

And sometimes we find a surprise guest.

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Hey, you’re not a turtle! A five-line skink takes advantage of a sunny spot and basks in the warmth of the morning sun.

 

I have some surprises to share with you in a week or so. I can’t wait! As soon as I can tell, I will. Until then, I’m keeping secrets…

Happy Monday! I have not drawn the winner from the giveaway. I’ll work on that later tonight. In the meantime, you can still go here to vote if you’d like. Entries are closed, but I’d still appreciate the vote. Unless we just won. Which we might have done. I’ll keep you posted!

I’m signing up for Camp NaNoWriMo, it’s a little less crazy than the November event because we set our own goals. I’m starting my first new project since getting my full-time job. Anyone want to join me? Go here to sign up! 28 days until the writing begins. I can hardly wait!

Nearly Wordless Wednesday: Best Friend, And a Giveaway is Coming!

I made a new friend at the zoo the other day. Meet Yorrick:

His name is Yorrick. I knew him well.

His name is Yorrick. I knew him well. Okay, not that well, but he’s kind of hard to get to know. Mostly because he’s dead.

He’s a limited edition design in one of our Mold-A-Matics, and he is amazing. I never buy anything when I go places, but I bought three of him. He’s my new travel companion.

Yorrick gets up to all kinds of mischief:

Keep an eye out for Yorrick here and on Twitter under the hashtag #adventureswithyorrick. Shenanigans are in the air. Soon I’ll be running a giveaway, and some lucky winner will get a Yorrick of their very own. If you’re local, run over to the Zoo as fast as you can to pick up one (or twelve!) for yourself. I don’t know how quickly they’ll change the mold back to an otter.

Let the games begin!

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Making Things Right

Sometimes bad things happen. This summer, I have been able to watch as an unfortunate circumstance was made right.

Turtles and tortoises are pretty much hard-wired to do what they were made to do – find food, find shelter, mate, lay their eggs, hibernate, repeat. Being so instinctive has helped them to survive for a very long time, but sometimes those instincts work against them. They don’t adapt quickly to changes in their environment, such as roads intersecting their nesting routes.***

This summer, a female eastern snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina serpentina, was struck by a car and killed while crossing a road. A quick-thinking observer picked up the turtle and took it to the local vet school. The turtle turned out to be a gravid (egg-carrying) female. Her eggs were promptly removed and were brought to the zoo for incubation.

Snapping turtle eggs in early June. 19 eggs is on the low end of average.

Snapping turtle eggs in early June. 19 eggs is on the low end of average.

Incubating reptile eggs is a trickier business than hatching other critters. When the eggs are retrieved from a nest, they must remain in the exact position in which they were found. If they are turned, the embryos can separate from the egg and drown. They need to come with a giant “This end up!” sticker.

I don’t have a lot of experience with turtle eggs. I’m a tortoise gal, myself. When I looked at these eggs, I didn’t have a whole lot of hope. So many of the eggs were dented, and those bright white spots are calcifications. Weird. But It have learned enough to know that we will always err on the side of caution. The eggs were carefully placed in vermiculite and set up for incubation.

The eggs were also candled. Candling is when a light is shined through the egg to check for any development.

snapper_eggs_2

As expected, no development was noted. It would be very unlikely to see growth in recently-laid eggs, anyway, so the eggs were incubated with crossed fingers.

A few weeks later, the eggs were candled again.

Note the veins running through the egg. This egg is fertile! The shadow beneath is the developing embryo!

Note the veins running through the egg. This egg is fertile! The shadow beneath is the developing embryo.

Holy cow! Several of the eggs showed signs of development.

Yesterday, I got an email telling me there was someone waiting to meet you all.

Check him (her?) out! Yes, that's a quarter for size comparison.

Check him (her?) out! Yes, that’s a quarter for size comparison. The turtle is covered with vermiculite. Once it has its first bath, seeing features will  be much easier.

Click to enlarge any of them you’d like to see more closely.

Looking at the tray of eggs, I would guess there are at least five others that will hatch. How soon? Hopefully really soon. Once the babies have emerged, they will stay at the zoo only a week or two before they are released back into the wild. They know all that they need to know to survive. That’s where the hard-wiring has the advantage.

I hope to post updates and pictures of any subsequent hatchings.. Fingers crossed that a few more make it. About 70% of nests in the wild are lost to predation, so this little guy is ahead of the game, despite its precarious entry into the world.

***Turtles sometimes cross roads to get to and from breeding grounds. If you ever find a turtle walking across a road and want to help it, put it across the road in the direction it was facing. If you put it back where it came from, it will only turn around and head back to where its homing device is telling it to go. Also, don’t stop in the middle of a busy, busy road. You’ll both get squashed.

Today, I Remembered

I hit a rough patch a bit ago and kind of ran off the road..  You may have visited that particular ditch in your travels as well, the place where things that would ordinarily slide off like water from a duck’s back instead bring you to your knees, and even the chocolate doesn’t taste good anymore.  I won’t bore you with details, but at the beginning of this week, watching my plans and efforts crumble to dust, I wondered why I bother at all. It was a low point. But not today. Today, I remembered.

Today, Phyllis came to visit my camp and pooped on the floor, and I remembered how to laugh.

Phyllis the Polish hen. She never stopped talking.

Phyllis the Polish hen. I can’t look at her without smiling.

Today, my new friends met my old friends, and I remembered why I love them both.

Rex, meet campers. Campers, meet Rex. Want to go to a movie?

Rex, meet campers. Campers, meet Rex. Want to go to a movie?

Today, an elephant played me a harmonica tune, and I remembered how to sing.

I don't even care that I have to clean the harmonica.

I don’t even care that I have to clean the harmonica.

Today, an otter caught a snack, and I remembered there is wonder in the world.

I wonder how she bends like that.

I wonder how she bends like that.

Today, there was a splash pad and ice cream, and I remembered how sweet life is.

July 11 splash pad 013

July 11 splash pad 033

Today the water stopped, and I remembered I can make my own magic. Someone reminded me. Thanks for that, little buddy!

July 11 splash pad 029

Today, I remembered why I love what I do. Today was a blessing.

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.

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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!

It’s About Time!

I’ve officially been taking care of tortoises in the Herpetology department at my zoo for two years now. Over that time, I have to admit I’ve found some favorites.

Ploughshare tortoise. One of the rarest animals in the entire world. There are fewer than 400 left in the wild.

Ploughshare tortoise. One of the rarest animals in the entire world. There are fewer than 400 left in the wild. Their carapaces are etched to discourage theft. It does not hurt the tortoise.

 

 

Here's the fun. There are TWO of them in here! See them?

Bog turtles. This is one of my zoo’s special long-term projects. Actually, any tortoise breeding program is a long-term project, since it can take 10-25 years for them to get to breeding size.

 

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.

Spiny Hill turtle hatchling. The hatchlings are always my favorites. I love how squished up it is. After hatching,  this turtle unfolded into its flatter and more proper proportions.

 

For 2 years, my favorite adult tortoises have been the pancake tortoises, Malacochersus tornieri.

Please excuse the weird green color. Without a flash, my camera likes to break down the light from the ultraviolet lamps into greens. Pretty, right

Please excuse the weird green color. Without a flash, my camera likes to break down the light from the ultraviolet lamps into greens. Pretty, right? Click to enlarge and really get a look at that face!

 

They are unbelievably cool. Instead of being rock-hard like other tortoise shells, the shell of the pancake tortoise is rather spongy.In the wilds of eastern Africa, they defend themselves by wedging tightly into narrow crevices in rock.  Their conservation status in the wild is listed as Vulnerable, which means that their numbers are okay at the moment, but sudden loss of habitat will leave them in serious jeopardy. Without the rocky terrain, they cannot survive.

For two years, I have been wishing and hoping for babies from our two pairs to no avail. The females haven’t been the most maternal and have scrambled the eggs before they could be retrieved. So frustrating! Until now.

Last week was the best week ever. Within 24 hours, I finished my novel, hit a major blog milestone, and got to meet someone new and precious. Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you Short Stack.

Hatching is serious business. And kind of messy. We have two pairs of adults - a pretty pair, and a less attractive pair. Can you guess the parents of this one by looking at the egg?

Hatching is serious business. And kind of messy. We have two pairs of adults – a pretty pair, and a less attractive pair. Can you guess the parents of this one by looking at the egg? Click to enlarge

 

This species is interesting when it comes to hatching, too. The incubation range is anywhere from 99 days to about 237 days. That’s a huge range. Other species tend to be a little more predictable. This guy (gal?) hatched at the lower end of the range, which is what caught me by surprise. Personally, I wasn’t expecting Short Stack to make an appearance until April. I do love surprises!

See that tiny crumb on the end of its nose? That's called an egg tooth, and it's what a baby reptile uses to shred the egg from the inside when it's time to hatch.

See that tiny white crumb on the end of its nose? That’s called an egg tooth, and it’s what a baby reptile uses to shred the egg from the inside when it’s time to hatch. Let me know if you don’t see it. I’ll show it to you in the next post.

 

Here’s some more exciting news. There’s another egg in the incubator, this one from the other pair. It has been candled and seems to be developing well.

 

So that’s my week. What exciting things are going on in your world?

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.

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.