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.
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.
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!
I hope you have a great week! What are the miracles in YOUR life?
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!”
What did you do for playtime this week? Did you chase an egg? Climb a tree? Read a good book?
Last week was a banner week for me. It’s the very beginning of tortoise hatching season, and I never know what I’ll find when I go into work. Last week was full of fun surprises. Like this:
Notice that this egg was laid in June. Incubating is a slooow process. I’m a little surprised that this guy is hatching already. When the eggs are laid, they go into an incubator for a month, then they go into a chiller for another month. Without a little “winter,” the eggs never develop. They have to go through a cold period (a frosty 65 degrees is winter for these little tortoises from Madagascar) and then warm up again before the egg “knows” conditions are going to be warm enough for hatching. Otherwise it’s all Game of Thrones, and the egg always expects that “Winter is coming.”
We write all kinds of information on the egg so we know who the parents are and which egg is which because they are in a tray with 10 or 11 other eggs. This time, I candled the eggs at two months, and out of 13 eggs, only three showed signs of development. I put the other 10 eggs back in the chiller for a recool. In fact, I was just coming in to recandle these eggs to see if they were still developing when I found one pipping. Click to enlarge.
And here’s the crazy part. These guys have belly buttons. They stay in the egg and absorb their yolk so it doesn’t get covered with dirt. Sometimes the yolk doesn’t go far.
I have a video to show you, but I was up too late last night to put all of this together. Next week. It’s pretty cute.
I’ve decided to add a regular feature on this blog. My topics bounce around a lot from work to cats to kids and back again, and I’m okay with that. But I thought it would be fun to add a weekly feature and give you a peek behind the curtain. I will primarily stick to my department, but there may be times that I branch out. Because I’m a giver. I put way too much thought into whether to set this thing down on a Monday or a Friday. But Friday is technically one of my Mondays, and that just got confusing, so I went with the real Monday. Consider it a tiny pat on the head to ease you into the work week. Unless you’re like me and you’re already into the work thing by Monday. In that case, forget I said anything.
I have thoughts and ideas of what I want to show you, like how we work venomous animals, the key to breeding certain species, and anything new that has hatched. I invite you to share in the comments anything you’re curious about, too.
In my last post, I covered some of my goals for the new year. Most of those were personal . I have set some goals for myself at work, too.
- I’m hatching these things left and right. I want to set up at least one new colony by dividing up the current two. Okay, really I have three. These are Neon Day Geckos from Madagascar. As adults, they are only about three inches long. They were first described only about 25 years ago, and they are considered endangered because their range is confined to a pretty tiny part of Northwest Madagascar. They live in dense colonies. Most recommend only one male per enclosure and several females, but I have had success keeping two males with a single female.
There’s a level of parental care that is not typically found among lizards. The babies that are hatched and reared in the same enclosure as their parents seem to grow more quickly than the juveniles that I pull to raise on their own. And these animals are fascinating. They move at a frequency that is much faster than our eye can register. It’s akin to watching a reel-to-reel from the 1920s, all jumpy. And babies are tiny. If there’s an opening larger than a millimeter, you can pretty much kiss a hatchling goodbye!
My goal is to study them for another couple of generations and possibly report some of my findings in a journal somewhere. I also want to get more practice at determining males from females. Boys have femoral pores that look like tiny braille dots, but when I say tiny, I mean tiny. It’s hard to tell. I want to get good at it.
- My second goal is to breed more of these guys. Some years are good years. 2015 was a decent year. I hatched all three sub-species of Spider Tortoises in decent numbers – a total of 15. 2016 wasn’t great. Like, at all. I hatched 6 Northerns, and that was it. The trouble is, the eggs that hatched in 2015 were actually laid in 2014. With a 9-month span between laying and hatching, it’s a little hard to pin down the problem. Were the eggs not incubated properly, or were they not fertile to begin with? So many moving parts.
I’m going to start, though, by building an outdoor pen for my pairs of Northern Spider Tortoises to see if natural sunlight can improve egg-laying. The other subspecies go outside already, but not these guys. I also separated boys and girls for winter dormancy. I turned the heat lamps off on Christmas eve, and they won’t go back on until March. In April, I’ll put the boys back in with their ladies. Sometimes absence really does make the heart grow fonder.
- My third goal is to complete my venomous training. I’ve already got a copperhead in my section, and I am training on Helodermas (that’s Gila Monsters and Beaded Lizards). Soon I’ll have one of those to care for, as well. We take safety seriously, so training is slow and methodical. It’s a good thing.
I also want to breed Angolan Pythons again this year. I have paired my male and female, after setting temperatures down to a chilly 84 degrees. But after the first night, I have seen no evidence of breeding. I am afraid my good buddy, The Professor, has been relegated to the Friend Zone. Or the female is too fat to breed.
- My last goal is to get some weight off of that female python. If she does lay eggs, she’ll go without eating until May, which will help. If she doesn’t lay eggs, she needs some exercise. Angolan Pythons are adapted to a really harsh environment and don’t need to eat all that often. Turns out, every two weeks is too often. So I’m going to set her up on an exercise plan, maybe build her a snake gym to crawl around on.
What would you like to know more about?
I don’t blog hop. I have bad knees, so hopping is usually contraindicated. Actually, that’s a lie. I don’t have bad knees, but it’s what I have to tell my husband to get out of running. I’ll hike all day long, but ask me to run, and I’ll drop to the floor clutching my knee like I’ve been hit with a tranquilizer dart. So far it has worked for me. Please do not tell my husband.
Anyway, I don’t normally hop with blogs. But today, I need to. I discovered Nerd In the Brain through Alice. I had to follow, because TOILET CANDY! Seriously, someone send me some. I needs it. And where there’s toilet candy, there is also some gratitude. I am grateful, but I know I’m not nearly grateful ENOUGH. Know what I mean? So today I work on that and share three things that made me smile.
I ordered some of this, and it shipped. It shipped yesterday. I am so happy I could weep. My husband loves coffee as much as I do. He got a Chemex a couple of years ago, and we’ve only used a drip coffee maker a couple of times since. It’s not hipster, it’s just good coffee. Husband is okay with me ordering Severus Snape coffee, but he draws the line at my life-sized cut out in the bedroom. No, I don’t understand him, either. Husbands are just weird, I guess
Hatchlings. So many hatchlings! You may remember this fabulous little guy. And it appears that he is indeed a male. Apparently, it’s a bigger deal than I realized, his hatching for me. I am receiving congrats from other zoos. That’s kind of cool. Who am I kidding? It’s totes amazeballs (the only time I have ever in my life used that phrase, I can promise you. And not only has he hatched, I’ve got some other new babies, too! I hatched two more Neon Day Geckos (Phelsuma klemmeri) and a Pancake Tortoise (Malachochersus tornieri)! Want to see a tortoise belly button? Of course, you do!
https://twitter.com/zooknoxville/status/717448098893664256 That’s MY GUY! Or girl. Probably girl.
And my third thing? I don’t know. Is it that after two months of illness, I’m finally starting to feel better? Is it that I printed a spiral bound copy of one of my manuscript and have begun rewrites and edits? Is it that the Padawan has been accepted into the Youth Volunteer program at my zoo? Is it that I have so many photos for the family album that it is headed toward a whopping 100 pages? Is it that I am making new connections with people in my life and am spending a wee bit less time hiding under a rock? Is it that I have a road trip coming up? Or that we have new animals coming into our department and some will be mine to care for? Or that someone made my family a chocolate coca-cola cake? I can’t decide which makes me smile bigger, so I’m throwing all of them out there.
And how about you? What three things made you smile this week? Come and join the blog hop by clicking here and adding your post to the hop. Then visit some of the other people there. Community is a good thing.
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:
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?
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.
Today we revisit an old story. I didn’t forget, you know. I’ve been
completely slacking building the suspense. Now I can share the secret.
Remember the Red-Footed Tortoise eggs?
These eggs were laid on Christmas eve. Lupita, the female, retained these eggs for a month longer than she should have. Much digging of test-nests and our addition of more substrate yielded nothing. When a female holds on to the eggs this long, her own health is at risk. On Christmas eve, the vets gave a dose of pitocin and some calcium to boost the efficacy of those egg-laying muscles. Within an hour, she had, in the words of the vet, pooped them out. Radiographs revealed she had managed to pass the lot, but the eggs were likely a write-off. We set them up in vermiculite and put them in the incubator anyway, just in case.
After a couple of months of incubation, candling (the egg version of an ultrasound) revealed this:
Red-Footed Tortoises typically take 5 months to incubate, so it’s a lot of hurry up and wait. We check the incubator daily because we have SO many eggs from different species that the odds of finding a hatchling in one of the boxes on any given day is pretty good. That being said, on May 1 I still wasn’t quite expecting to see this:
I crack my hard boiled eggs the same way! The hatchling basically blew out of its eggshell like a four-legged Hulk. I have to admire the effort it made. All that work was done using the egg tooth on the end of its nose.
This clutch contained five eggs. Four of them hatched. I was pleased with the odds. The fifth egg had some dark speckles which often indicates death in the egg. In our department, though, we don’t throw eggs away until we know for certain there’s nothing living inside. So I continued to incubate. About a month later, that fifth, dark-speckled egg hatched! The offspring was significantly smaller than all of the others (about 25% smaller at hatching), but small doesn’t always mean it’s not viable. It is now two months old and is keeping up with its siblings just fine.
So ends my first endeavor with breeding non-Malagasy tortoises. It’s not rocket science by any means, but the more experience I gain in tortoise breeding, the better able I will be to help the global turtle and tortoise crisis in the future.
So have you been holding out on me, too? What juicy secrets have you been sitting on? Tell me!
In my job, each season brings its own mystery and magic. In the winter, many species lie dormant waiting for the warmth of spring. In summer, they are at their peak of activity, breeding and otherwise. In fall, they begin the mysterious process of shutting down for the winter to come. And spring itself? That’s the time of renewal. It’s at this time of year that when we check the incubator, we often see eyes staring back at us.
This year, hatching season got off to an early start. Our adult Pancake Tortoises (Malacochersus tornieri), a species native to countries in southern Africa, such as Tanzania and Mozambique, begin laying their eggs in the fall. This species is unusual, both in their day-to-day behavior and in their breeding. These tortoises can climb. And I don’t mean a little bit. They live in rocky kopjes, and they are gifted with the ability to scale rocks.They are also squishy. Their carapace has numerous fontanels that never close up, which allows the tortoise to squeeze into tight spaces between rocks to escape predators.
The females tend to seek higher ground when laying their eggs. They usually lay one egg at a time, and may lay 4-5 eggs over the course of a 4 month laying period. The eggs are huge at about 42mm (1.7 inches), impressive when you consider that the female is only around 6 inches long.
Here’s where things get weird. If a keeper were to place the egg into the incubator at 88 degrees, nothing would happen. Like, ever. This species experiences a diapause at the beginning of its development, which means it is laid in a state of suspended animation. Nothing happens unless conditions are right. Guess what the right captive conditions are? A wine chiller. The eggs are placed into a chiller at 65 degrees. Though other zoos do it differently, we’ve learned that a week or two at these cooler temps is all they need to get them going. After chilling, the warmer temperature of the incubator breaks the diapause and development begins. Diapause presents differently in many species, and one day I’ll do a post just on that. It’s weird and wonderful, setting up the juveniles to hatch at times when conditions in the wild are ideal for their survival.
So now pictures! Click any image to enlarge.
Happy Friday! I have more pictures and species to share soon. So far this year, we’ve hatched 10 individuals representing 3 threatened or endangered species.
What’s the good news from your week?
I haven’t blogged in an age. I blame the snow. We’ve had lots of it. I didn’t blog about the snow because everyone had snow. There was nothing particularly interesting about mine.
And I didn’t blog because I was tired. Remember that snow part? I live in a neighborhood that is lovely all other times of year, but during snow and ice, it’s impassable. In order to get to work, I had to hike to the main road for someone to pick me up. Then at the end of the day, I had to walk home. Carrying all my stuff. So early bedtimes and no blogging. But I don’t mind one tiny bit. I’d walk through snow AND fire to get to my job.
Ever have a job that’s made of magic? I do. Every day the sun rises, I get to do something I love. Each shift brings its own lessons, disappointments, satisfactions. And this year promises to be the best yet.
This is the year of potential. There are more species, families, and orders represented in our wardrobe-sized incubators than I have seen in the four years I’ve been peeking into incubators. Tortoises, turtles, and even lizards. Give me a few months, and I may even get to toss a clutch of snake eggs in there, too. One of my pairs of pythons has knocked some boots recently, so I am hopeful.
Chicken eggs hatch out with unfailing predictability in 21 days. Reptiles are different. So many variables come into play. Species, the presence or absence of a diapause, humidity, and temperature all come into play when hatching reptiles. Typically, an incubation period will be 60 days or longer, sometimes much longer.
Here’s the cool thing. Every few weeks, we take a peek to see how things are cooking. It’s like witchcraft. A dark room, a decent, focused light source, and poof! We see what’s going on in the egg.
Here are two eggs from Red-footed tortoises, Chelonoidis carbonaria. These images were taken on January 28, about a month after they were laid. Click to enlarge.
I’m excited about these eggs. The animals are new to our collection. They have bred before, and it’s a very common species, but this is the first time I’ve been in charge.
And here is a shot from March 1. Click to enlarge. There’s some detail that’s hard to see at this size.
And here’s your bonus. Oustelet’s chameleon egg. Furcifer ousteleti. In real life, this egg is the size of my index fingernail.
This chameleon egg was laid… wait for it… in July. And we didn’t see any development until a month ago. If this egg hatches, it likely won’t happen until… wait for it… July. This particular species takes an age to incubate – an average of 9-12 months. The babies will be smaller than my pinkie, miniscule copies of the adults. Is it July yet?
In another month, I’ll take a few more pictures and see what’s new in egg-land. And though it’s only March, hatching season has already gotten off to a very good start. Watch for info on our first three babies very soon.
What’s the best job you’ve ever had?