Notes From the Zookeeper: Miracles

I missed last week. It wasn’t that I had nothing to say. Trust me, I had LOTS to say, but I ran out of time in which to say it. We went to see Lego Batman, and it was past my bedtime when we came home. I’m planning ahead this time.

Our zoo works with many endangered species of turtles and tortoises, and in most cases, our goal is to breed them. With few exceptions, these animals are sneaky when it comes to nesting. They create a nest chamber, lay the eggs, and then cover it up completely with any material in the vicinity. Unless you catch them digging, you’ll never find the eggs. It’s difficult in captivity, too. Sometimes the nest is hidden so well that our only clue that they have laid eggs at all is the mud on the back of their shells.

how to breed pancake tortoise

Check it out! She is digging a nest for egg-laying! Note the dirt on her back. She kicks up quite a bit of it as she digs.

Indoor enclosures are smaller, so there is less surface area to cover, but it’s still tricky. Looking for loose soil will get you nowhere. A female will soak the dirt with her own urine to pack it down. And digging straight down yields nothing. The nest tends to hook around in one direction or another to throw off predators. Luck is the best guide.

Sometimes things go wrong. It has happened to all of us. If you’ve spent any time breeding wildlife, the unthinkable will occur. It happened to my co-worker. She had located the newest nest of Radiated Tortoise eggs, but then while digging them up, she broke an egg, a large piece of it falling off in her hand.

It’s a terrible feeling, the crushing weight of all the what-ifs. What if the egg was fertile? What if it was the only one in the clutch to be fertile? What if the female never laid anymore? When I inadvertently broke an egg, I had to go to bed early. My co-worker holds our institutional record for Radiated tortoises. Doesn’t matter. It still hurts.

But maybe all was not lost? The shell was broken, an inch-and-a-half piece gone. But she noticed that the membrane inside was still intact. There was no way to wash the dirt off of the egg like we usually do. There was too great a risk of introducing bacteria through the thin and porous membrane. She chucked it in the incubator, dirt and all, and carefully balanced the broken piece of shell over the gaping hole. And hoped for the best.

And sometimes hope is not misplaced.

We call this baby “he” because this species has temperature-dependent sex determination. The temp the egg is incubated at can determine gender for many, many species. An aside, climate change can have devastating effects on such species since only a variation of 4F degrees determines gender. Another aside, I cannot spell “devastating” without help from spell-check.

Updated for extra squee:

The only evidence of his precarious beginnings is the number of scutes on his shell. All species of turtle and tortoise in the world, from the tiny Padloper to the biggest Galapagos Tortoise have the same number of scutes (scales) on their shells. There are 22 around the bottom margin (appropriately named “marginal scutes”) and 13 of the bigger ones. Native Americans even referred to the calendar as “13 moons on the turtles’ back” because there are 13 new moons in a year. But sometimes incubation issues can result in too many or too few.

turtles have belly buttons

The little zig-zag in the middle is what you’re looking for.

Meatball has a couple of extra ones, referred to as “split scutes.” It is a purely cosmetic issue and only adds to his charm.

Updated a second time to include the best shot of tortoise tushy EVER!

how tortoises hatch

TUSHY!!! Look at those chunky thighs!

I hope you have a great week! What are the miracles in YOUR life?

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32 thoughts on “Notes From the Zookeeper: Miracles

  1. I bleeping love you. This is the absolute best post ever. I laughed! I cried! I learned! I saw turtle tooshy! No post will ever top it!
    No, seriously, this is super interesting AND adorable.
    Quick question, because I am not biologically-inclined (unless that biology involves me following my biological need to get food): Why do y’all dig up the eggs instead of having them hatch from their nest? What makes the incubator more of an ideal hatching spot? You have me all intrigued!

    • GREAT question! With turtles and tortoises, we prefer controlled conditions. Fluctuations in temperature are bad for incubating eggs, so the nest in captivity isn’t always the best. Plus we can incubate for the gender we need. One species that is critically endangered has fewer males in captivity, so that means lower genetic diversity. Ideal pairs are 1:1 ratio. So we incubated those specifically for males.

      I have a species of lizard, though, that really, Mom knows best. I quit trying to incubate those because she knows what she is doing better than I do. She picks the perfect spot, and the eggs invariably hatch.

      • Whoa. Follow-up question: are you legit saying that you can adjust the temperature to influence the sex of an egg? So, you’re like, “We want girls,” so you turn it to 75 degrees instead of 96 degrees? Because that’s insane/awesome.

      • It’s actually less of a difference than that. We have one incubator that is set for 84 degrees. The other is set for 88. Many of our species are girls at the higher temp and boys at the lower, but some are reversed. The Black-Breasted Leaf Turtle we needed to incubate for males are from high in the mountains of Vietnam, so temps are cooler. We had our office set to 68 degrees all summer long. I FROZE!

      • LOL. Oh, yeah. I was just throwing out numbers. Although, 68 degrees sounds glorious. My thermostat is currently set to 61. I’m not happy unless other people’s teeth are chattering.
        (Yes. My husband hates me.)

  2. Fabulous post, Heather! Thank you for all the adorable baby pictures of Mr. Meatball! Turtle tushies are definitely squee-worthy. 🙂

    • The tail swings from side to side when they walk sometimes. Those thighs are to die for! Typically as the get larger, the tail is tucked to one side or another because they breed/pee/poop through the vent in their tails.

  3. I remember when we were considering an adoption out of Russia that I learned of a bit of Russian folklore. The growing season is so short there that some farmers just fling the seed onto the frost to “see what takes root.” We felt like we did that and we built a family by taking the chance. So yes, put that broken egg in an incubator and see what takes root!–Nancy

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