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?

Notes From the Zookeeper: Tiny Tortoise Videos and Also Playtime

Last week I showed you some pictures of newly hatched Northern Spider Tortoises. And I do believe I promised you a video. I am one to keep my promises, so here you go. You’re welcome!

It’s really not dancing, of course. It just looks that way. It’s trying to bury itself. Tortoise eggs are laid several inches underground, and when they hatch, they hang out and rest for a while before heading to the surface. They like to emerge when it’s dark. If they can see light, they are too exposed, so it is trying to dig itself a little hole. It works in dirt. Not so much in paper towels. Never fear. I tucked it in under a piece of wadded up paper towel, and all is well.

Here’s hatchling number 2 showing this instinctive behavior before it is removed from the vermiculite.

So now for the part about playtime. Pet animals engage in play behaviors that aren’t actually play. A cat turning a ball of yarn inside out, for example, is a tiny hunter honing its mad disembowelment skilz. You never know when you’re going to need those, you know. Zoo animals do that, too. It’s important for them to have an opportunity to engage in natural behaviors, otherwise they get bored, fat, or even stressed. The word we use for eliciting these behaviors is “enrichment.” Treats, toys, scents, new bedding or furniture, even something like leaving an exhibit without a top so that a Prairie Dog or Meerkat has to watch out for predators like they would in the wild are all considered enrichment. The more intelligent the animal, the more enrichment they require.

Imagine driving the kids to Grandma’s house six hours away with no video games, books, music, cell phones, snacks, talking, etc. *Shudder* Without something to do, it takes kids about 2.1 seconds to start inventing games we don’t want them to, like “smack-a-sister” or “let’s kick the back of the driver’s seat until they scream.” An animal in captivity that is bored will begin to do those types of things, too. It’s called stereotypy, and manifests in many different ways, from pacing to rocking, to paw sucking, and everything in between. It’s up to their caregivers to make sure that they have the mental stimulation that they need to thrive. In fact, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums requires that accredited zoos provide enrichment for their animals. Mammal keepers provide it up to several times a day. Only 50% of enrichment offered should be through novel foods (stuff they don’t eat on a regular basis) because there’s only so much an animal can and should eat.

As a reptile keeper, the needs of our charges are a little different. For the most part, their brains are not terribly complicated. Most snakes, for example, understand eat, poop, breed, repeat. We enrich them by changing out branches and plants periodically, offering new insects, or even sprinkling some spices around to encourage them to move and explore.

Komodo Dragons (Varanus komodoensis) are kind of the geniuses of the reptile world. They have a greater ability to learn than most other species. Our young male figured out within a couple of months that if his exhibit light went out in the daytime, we were going to catch him for something. He would hiss before we ever got our key in the lock. Pretty smart, yes? So they require more enrichment than the average reptile. Khaleesi, our lovely female, has some great climbing structures, and her main keeper has done some training, which also keeps her brain engaged. When she is off-exhibit, we also have the petting zoo staff bring up sheep and goats to run around her exhibit. They poop, pee, shed, and generally make the exhibit more interesting for her. Since they have no experience with a large reptilian predator, the goats just think it’s all in good fun. Then they go home, and Khaleesi is placed back in her exhibit to run around and sniff things. She spends hours in activity after a visit from the goats.

This week, we offered her fun food – hard boiled eggs. They are slippery and easily lost in the leaf litter, but they smell delicious, so she uses her long, forked tongue to sniff them out. They have a Jacobson’s organ like a snake, so they essentially use their tongues to smell.

And I’ll leave you with my favorite shot from last week. Tiny Northern Spider Tortoise with yolk barely absorbed. It couldn’t quite walk yet because its plastron was so bubbled that it couldn’t get all four feet on the ground at the same time. Can I get a collective “Awwwww!”

Do tortoise have bellybutton

Welp…

What did you do for playtime this week? Did you chase an egg? Climb a tree? Read a good book?

A PSA From a Cat

Ravenclaw says “Go vote!”

She also may have said "I will end you, human. The hat is TOO FAR!" I'm not totally sure, though. I don't speak fluent cat.

She also may have said “I will end you, human. The hat is TOO FAR!” I’m not totally sure, though. I don’t speak fluent cat.

If you are in line before the polls close, you will be allowed to vote. It’s the law. Let’s do this thing! Don’t let long lines scare you! Be excited because it means that more Americans than ever are letting their voices be heard.

"That's better, human. That hat was squishing my ears."

“That’s better, human. That hat was squishing my ears.”

 

The Best Question I Have Ever Been Asked

Zookeepers get asked a lot of questions. It’s part of the job, and honestly one of my favorite things.
Yesterday morning I was bent over unclogging a tube in the bog turtle rearing exhibit. I heard a family approach the fence, and the mom began reading the graphics aloud to her young son.

“Looking into this exhibit,  you may be looking into the future of bog turtle conservation…”

The little boy looked at me through the peeking window and said “Are you real?”

I assured him that I was. His eyes got huge as he took the words on the graphics to heart.

“Are you from the future?”

If Santa can break the space/time continuum, why couldn’t a zookeeper? We are made of magic and cat hair.
My forefinger. Check out that expression! the eyes look white, but that's because the pupils are contracted. At night, they dilate, and those eyes are solid black!

My forefinger. Check out that expression! the eyes look white, but that’s because the pupils are contracted. At night, they dilate, and those eyes are solid black!

It’s National Zookeeper Appreciation Week. Have you hugged a keeper yet?

Nearly Wordless Wednesday: It’s Tortoise Hatching Season!

I should clarify. It’s the beginning of hatching season. Breeding starts around June for most of our Malagasy dwarf tortoise species. The eggs are laid, they move to the incubator for a month, then they move to a chiller for another month or two, depending on the species.

Funny story. So, a couple of weeks ago, I looked in the incubator and saw this:

Northern Spider Tortoise (Pyxis arachnoides brygooi). Notice that the egg was actually laid at the end of July.

Northern Spider Tortoise (Pyxis arachnoides brygooi). Notice that the egg was actually laid at the end of July.

The first hatchling of the year! It was terribly exciting, but Spider Tortoises are notorious for hanging out in the egg for a day or so before emerging, and I was off. I emailed my boss to see how things were going, and he said the hatchling had almost emerged. Yay! The next day, I rushed in, and look! Ta-DA! (you can click on any image to enlarge)

I snapped a few more closeups, and then I took one of the whole box of eggs. Do you see what I see?

Uh, could it be THE WRONG EGG?

Uh, could it be THE WRONG EGG?

I looked again. Indeed, the tiny tortoise hanging out like it was no thing was a different species. My lovely little Northern Spider Tortoise had missed “First Hatchling” status, but more than that, I was worried that something had gone wrong and perhaps I had lost it. The Boss (he really hates when I call him that) recommended spraying the egg heavily. That indicates to the hatchling that it is the rainy season. So I did. And two hours later…

The actual first hatchling was a Common Spider Tortoise (don’t let the word “common” fool you; they’re critically endangered). These two have since been joined by two more Northern Spider Tortoises, and there are two more trays ready to hit the incubator next week. We’re hoping for a great year.

And Now For The Good Part: Hatching Oustalet’s Chameleons, Part 2

Where were we, now? Ah, yes. I left you with this.

The chameleon breaks out of the end of its egg. See that pink bit? That's its TONGUE! It laps water before it hatches.

The chameleon breaks out of the end of its egg. See that pink bit? That’s its TONGUE! It laps water before it hatches.

After a ten month incubation, these Oustalet’s Chameleon (Furcifer oustaleti) eggs began to hatch. A teaser image, I know. I have taken hundreds of shots of these little guys, and there were just too many to share in a single blog post. Please accept my apology. To be fair, I didn’t put you through anything I didn’t experience myself. It was several days after I saw the tongue before I saw the baby. Are you ready? Hang onto your hat.  Click any of the images to enlarge. There’s more detail when the pictures are full-sized.

The hatchlings rest in their egg for what feels like a long time.  Some of the eggs showed tears in the end for several days before their inhabitants finally emerged. All the juveniles seemed to end with one final step before hatching: sleeping.

Such hard work for a little guy!

Such hard work for a little guy!

I took many photographs of the babies asleep in their eggs. Hatching is hard work. Imagine getting caught in the rain and having to peel off your skinny jeans. That are a size too small. Without using your hands. It’s exhausting. In addition to resting, the hatchlings were also absorbing the remainder of their yolk.

Some of the babies took right off after a quick nap, while others slept in their egg for over 12 hours. Note the color change between the first set of images. The lighter color seems to indicate the hatchling is sleeping. When the baby is actively working to emerge, the color shifts to brown. The brown coloration is similar to the dark, dark grey they turn when they are stressed, possibly indicating that hatching is a stressful experience. It’s hard to say for sure, though, because sometimes the act of observing something changes what is being observed.

And then… Ta-da!

That's my thumb. Yeah, he's tiny. The little gold flecks are bits of vermiculite, the medium we prefer for incubating eggs.

That’s my thumb. Yeah, he’s tiny. The little gold flecks are bits of vermiculite, the medium we prefer for incubating eggs.

 

 

A couple of days after hatching. Note the white spots on the side.

A couple of days after hatching. Note the white spots on the side. The grey coloration appears to be their default setting. How tiny is this animal? It’s holding onto a bit of honeysuckle.

These animals are beautifully camouflaged. They are nearly indistinguishable from the branches.

These animals are beautifully camouflaged. They are nearly indistinguishable from the branches.

I can’t stop taking pictures. They sit across from my desk, so my lunch hour is usually spent snapping interesting poses. Can you blame me? Could you eat lunch or read a book when a little guy is doing this?

Small chameleon goes Full Yoda - "Take my picture, you will.."

Small chameleon goes Full Yoda – “Take my picture, you will..”

These chameleons are growing well. They are fed at least once a day on tiny crickets and fruit flies. I mist them a couple of times a day, as well. Because they are completely arboreal, they don’t recognize standing water as something to drink. They lap water droplets when it rains, so I make sure to “rain” on them often. Juveniles tend to dehydrate easily.

Most of these babies will eventually find their way to homes in other zoos. Once we get a little size on them and they can handle travel, they will go out and help create a healthy captive population, which will help take pressure off of wild populations. In the meantime, I’ll have my camera handy, and I do like to share.

Celi has hatched some things, too. Go pay her a visit!

Hurry Up and Wait: Hatching Oustalet’s Chameleons

Way back when (it does seem like an age ago), I wrote about candling reptile eggs.  Remember this picture?

This is pretty cool. The dark dots are called blood spots. Note the veining to the left. Things are happening here!

This is pretty cool. The dark dots are called blood spots. Note the veining to the left. Things are happening here!

This egg is from an Oustalet’s Chameleon, the largest species of chameleon in the world. The egg is smaller than it looks. The light shining on it is 1/4in wide. These eggs are small, about the size of my pinkie fingernail.

Many species of lizards hatch in about 60 days. These eggs were laid way back in July 2014, and the first signs of development weren’t seen until six months later. We knew this lengthy incubation was normal for Oustalet’s Chameleons, but we didn’t know much else. So often, species that are considered to have adequate numbers in the wild are overlooked for captive breeding programs, sometimes until their numbers drop and it’s too late to turn things around. Those who do breed them are often private keepers, and they don’t always think to take the best notes.

This is our zoo’s first clutch of Oustalet’s Chameleons, and I’d like to share what I have learned, the good, the bad, and the things that will give you grey hairs.

There doesn’t seem to be much obvious courtship. The guy finds an agreeable lady and does his thing. A female who is not carrying eggs is bright green with white spots down her sides. Once breeding has completed and the female is gravid (carrying eggs), she turns greenish or tan with ribbons of red. This coloration is a visible cue to any passing males that she is officially off the market. Click photos to enlarge. Resolution and color is enhanced when the pics are larger. Weird.

The female carries the eggs for a couple of months, and then she deposits the clutch, which my consist of as many as 60 eggs, in a hole she has dug with her hind feet. They dig deep, too. A foot of substrate is ideal for her to work with. Though the eggs show no signs of development for many months, it’s easy to pick out the healthy, fertile ones. After a few weeks, the infertile eggs collapse and turn rather yellow, while the good ones stay nice and plump and turn white (known as “chalking up” in the trade).

The eggs may develop at different rates. We have no idea why. Our tray of eggs was incubated at room temperature (our Main Area ranges between 76-78 degrees), but some eggs began to show their first sign of development (see photo) well before others. Same temps, same box, same relative humidity, but a few eggs were quicker to begin developing.

Fast forward to late May. We began to find these:

chameleon_egg_sweating

The first sign the egg is about to hatch is sweating. What is inside is about to come outside.

A sweating egg means hatching is imminent. But even after ten months of incubation, nothing happens quickly. The egg  with the goo on it did produce a live hatchling, but not for an entire week. After two days, the egg began to collapse. A day after that, slits appeared in one end where the baby chameleon used its egg tooth to shred it’s way out.

The chameleon breaks out of the end of its egg. See that pink bit? That's its TONGUE! It laps water before it hatches.

The chameleon breaks out of the end of its egg. See that pink bit? That’s its TONGUE! It laps water before it hatches.

And then we waited some more. The baby spent its remaining time within the egg resting and absorbing its yolk. Three days after the first slits appeared, we had our hatchling.

Stay tuned for Part II on Monday. I have so many images to share, I couldn’t fit them all into one post. Trust me when I say it’s worth the wait.

The Secret Keeper.

I know something you don’t know. I think. Maybe. Unless you’re my boss, and then you already know. But that only accounts for one of you. The rest of you are in the dark. I’ve got a secret. A cool one. And I can’t tell you. Maybe tomorrow, or next week. Soon. Very soon. It’s killing me. I want to blab. Since I can’t yet, I’ll share some pictures instead.

Many of our animals at the zoo are maintained in breeding colonies. Most of them produce eggs in their season. We have a big incubator to house all the eggs. There’s a reason, though, that we don’t count our tortoises before they hatch. Sometimes, for whatever reason, they don’t hatch at all. Sometimes embryos don’t ever complete their development, or they never actually develop at all. Sometimes they weren’t fertile to begin with. Things go wrong, and it’s just a part of the job.

And sometimes we get surprises. We were surprised this week. There was this egg, see. And candling… Remember candling?

Candling a snapping turtle egg. Note that it is vascularized. The shadow on the right is the developing embryo.

Candling a snapping turtle egg. Note that it is vascularized. The shadow on the right is the developing embryo.

When the light was shined through the egg, there was a lot of empty space. It appeared that the embryo just didn’t make it. There’s a reason we hang on to eggs for months beyond their expected hatching date. I took a quick peek in the incubator the other day and saw this:

See  the little nose peeping out?

See the little nose peeping out?

It’s a pancake tortoise (Malacochersus tornieri)! So cute and flat! The next morning, I checked his progress, and he was still hiding out in that egg, probably absorbing his yolk before he made his way into the world. Later in the afternoon, I noticed he was on his way out!

These images are best viewed as a slideshow. Click on the first one to enlarge, and then click the right arrow that appears to see them in order.

So you want to see something crazy? Of course you do!

And does he still look like a pillbug? You tell me:

Nope! All resemblance to pill bugs was your imagination!

Nope! All resemblance to pill bugs was your imagination!

 

In case you didn’t get to read all the captions, this is the first tortoise I have ever seen emerge from its egg entirely. I’ve caught dozens in various stages of hatching, but never like this. Amazing. I love my job!

Nearly Wordless Wednesday: Open With Caution

Cuteness ahead. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

At the Zoo, March means the beginning of hatching season. Two weeks ago, I took pictures of this.

Look who's here! This is a Pyxis arachnoides brygooi from Madagascar.

Look who’s here! This is a Pyxis arachnoides brygooi from Madagascar.

 

I took this photo the same day. Most of these eggs are from three subspecies of spider tortoise.

Look at all those eggs!

Look at all those eggs!

Despite all being from spider tortoises, there is quite a difference in the size of the eggs. Sometimes the really, really little ones don’t hatch. Not always.

I call him Tater Tot. Because he's roughly the size of, well...

I call him Tater Tot. Because he’s roughly the size of, well…

He’s easily the tiniest brygooi I have ever seen. And he’s a feisty thing. When he was done with his photo session, he just walked away. Hiding in a shell is for weenies, right?

Small enough to fit in my pocket, but I won't.

Small enough to fit in my pocket, but I won’t.

 

How tiny is he? I’ll show you.

Gratuitous bellybutton shot! The tortoise on the left is the same subspecies and hatched only a day or so before.

Gratuitous bellybutton shot! The tortoise on the left is the same subspecies and hatched only a day or so before.

 

I’ll try to get some more shots for you today. Happy tortoise day!