Fun Friday: Hatching Season Begins

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.

The hatchling waits until most of its yolk is absorbed to begin emerging.

The hatchling waits until most of its yolk is absorbed to begin emerging. This egg was laid in October and hatched in January. Incubation lengths vary widely depending on methods used. Note the completely shredded appearance of the egg. The hatchling did all that with just its egg tooth.

Calcium aids in muscle contrations. After a long rest, they begin to eat the egg shell, possibly for a calcium boost.

Calcium aids in muscle contractions. After a long rest, they begin to eat the egg shell, possibly for a calcium boost.

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?

The Magic In My Everyday

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.

You're looking at a baby tortoise. An embryo. If I m not mistaken, its head is toward the left. I watched it move. It has months to go before it hatches, and I saw it wiggle. Mind = blown.

You’re looking at a baby tortoise. An embryo. If I m not mistaken, its head is toward the left. I watched it move. It has months to go before it hatches, and I saw it wiggle. Mind = blown.

And here’s your bonus. Oustelet’s chameleon egg. Furcifer ousteleti. In real life, this egg is the size of my index fingernail.

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 the earliest sign of development. Note the veining to the left. Things are happening here, finally!

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?

Lose Some, Find Some: or Today I Spill the Beans

So I’ve been keeping a secret. I hate secrets. They put so much distance between us. So today, I’m just going to lay it right out there. I think you’re going to like it.

First, let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, an interesting species of turtle became extinct. Last seen in 1908, the Arakan Forest Turtle, Heosemys depressa, disappeared and was never seen again. It seems like a sad story, but stick with me. About 100 years later, in 1994, a scientist visiting a food market in Asia was astounded to find a few of these animals for sale! A relic population was discovered, and animals were taken into captivity in the hopes of forming assurance colonies and potentially increasing its numbers.

With wild-caught animals in general, and reptiles in particular, breeding isn’t a straightforward endeavor. With dogs and cats, boy + girl = offspring too numerous to count. With wild animals, the equation can be far more complicated. We are just beginning to understand and respect the complex social signals and mating rituals many animals require in order to reproduce. Cheetahs, for example, need a choice of more than one male in order to breed successfully. In the last ten years or so, our thoughts on cheetah reproduction has changed dramatically, and zoos have moved their charges to breeding centers when trying for cubs rather than keeping specific pairs of animals.

To complicate matters further, getting the first generation of wild-caught animals to breed doesn’t mean the species is automatically saved.  The offspring of these wild-caught animals are noted in the studbook as F1, the first generation born in captivity. Since it is no longer desirable, or in some cases even possible, to continue to take animals out of the wild, it is important that the F1 generation reproduce themselves. Breeding programs for many different species are in a race to produce the next generation, the captive-bred’s captive-bred, the elusive F2.

Sometimes that doesn’t happen. Take the white rhinoceros, for example. Animals taken from the wild, even as juveniles, have bred fairly successfully in zoos. The two older females at our zoo, for example, have produced an impressive ten calves apiece over the last 30 years or so. There are plenty of F1 calves in zoos around the country. But for reasons poorly understood at this point, there have been precious few F2s. The offspring of the wild ones are not having babies of their own.

Producing an F2 is a pretty big deal. It means that the diet and care given to the animal are more or less correct. It means that we’re moving in the right direction, and that we may be able to save some critically endangered species.

The Arakan Forest Turtle, an animal whose life in the wild we still don’t fully understand even 20 years later and whose diet and husbandry has been educated guesswork, has been bred in captivity several times. That’s great news, of course. But zoos and private breeders have been working with that F0 generation and producing  only F1s. Until now.

Without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to the first f2 Arakan Forest Turtle in the world, hatched at Knoxville Zoo about three weeks ago.

I looked in the incubator one afternoon, and this guy was looking back at me.

I looked in the incubator one afternoon, and this guy was looking back at me.

Click the images to enlarge.

This development is especially exciting because, unlike species who are endangered due to habitat destruction, there is still wild habitat for these animals to return to. If they continue to be bred in captivity in reasonable numbers, they may one day be able to go home.

So here’s  a shout-out right here to Brad Moxley, dedicated keeper at my zoo. Congrats, Brad! Your hard work  is paying off! It’s an honor to work with you, sir.

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!

And This Is What It’s Come To

I never thought spending a few hours a week caring for tortoises at a zoo would lead me to this. It’s a slippery slope. I started out innocently enough, just wanting to offer my tortoise friends a little treat now and then.   But here I am, bundled against the chilly weather and sneaking out of the house in the wee hours to cruise the neighborhood for weeds. I am ashamed. Especially when a neighbor drives by and catches me stumbling along in the gloam with my baggie of cabbaged dandelion (not actual cabbage, of course. Real cabbage is bad for tortoises).

It’s not just dandelion I’m after anymore. Dandelions are a gateway weed. Now I’m also searching high and low for mallow, and even the occasional Japanese honeysuckle and chickweed.  If this downward spiral continues, I’ll find myself hitting the back part of the playground for some hoary plantain (maybe it’s more politically correct to call it “plantain of questionable morals?” “working plantain?”).

And not only am I trying to score weeds in the neighborhood, I’ve also been scouring the internet for the proper artificial lighting and seeds so I can grow my own. If I’ get good at it, I may sell some, too.

It's a gateway weed. Look at that lovely bloom! Why don't my dandelions bloom like that? I covet!

It’s a gateway weed. Look at that lovely bloom! Why don’t my dandelions bloom like that? I covet! source: simple-wikipedia

Tortoise-keeping is leading me into all kinds of other sins, as well. I know it says in the Bible “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s dandelions.” Or something like that. But I do. I so covet them. If you saw them, you would to! The base of the plants themselves is six inches wide. The full-grown leaves are twelve inches long. Those are some dandelions! They could feed the entire collection by themselves!

When I look at the piddly little plants in my own yard and their stupid little two-inch leaves, I am just green with envy. Green with a pretty yellow bloom. What does my neighbor’s yard have that I don’t have? Their dandelions are growing out of a brick wall, for Pete’s sake! What’s so wrong with me? Why can’t I have nice things, too?

I’m discontent. It’s true what they say. The chickweed is always greener in someone else’s rock wall. I think we are going to have to pack up and move to a place where the weeds are thicker and a girl can catch a break.

Every time I come home with my bag of weeds, I promise myself this will be the last time. I’ll settle down with some nice collards or a little kale. And then I see this face.

Bored. So bored. What's with the plain greens? Score me some weeds, yo!

Bored. So bored. What’s with the plain greens? Score me some weeds, yo!

And the next thing I know,  I’m cruising the neighborhood with my giant Zip-loc bag and wishing my neighbors were less attentive gardeners. Where will it end? I’m waiting to show up on the daily Neighborhood Watch emails – a suspect with the springtime shakes, covered in dirt canvasing the weedy and seedy parts of the neighborhood weeding people’s gardens. Technically, I’m not actually weeding, though. I just take some of the leaves. If I yank them out by the roots, I’ve essentially cut of my own supply. How sad is it that I’ve thought it through that carefully? Don’t answer.

Maybe it’s just spring fever. We’ve been dependent on grocery store greens for far too long, and now that stuff is blooming and growing, I’ve gone a little nuts. Hopefully I’ll settle down in a few weeks. Maybe not, though. Soon it’ll be watermelon season!

Maybe it’s just spring fever. We’ve been dependent on grocery store greens for far too long, and now that stuff is blooming and growing, I’ve gone a little nuts. Hopefully I’ll settle down in a few weeks. Maybe not, though. Soon it’ll be watermelon season!

First the weeds, and now taking questionable photos of tortoise bellybuttons. But look how it has closed up since last time!

First the weeds, and now taking questionable photos of tortoise bellybuttons. But look how it has closed up since last time!

I have some exciting news to post soon. As soon as I get the green-light to share, I will!

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!

Nearly Wordless Wednesday: Over and Out!

We tend to think of tortoises as slow. And subject to the laws of gravity. Sometimes we’re wrong.

This species (Manouria impressa) is pretty good at climbing. But they don’t always stick the landing.

What are you looking at?

What are you looking at?

Nobody’s perfect, right?

Gratuitous belly button shot! Hatchling pancake tortoise. The umbilicus is the bright yellow patch. It is rapidly disappearing.

Gratuitous belly button shot! Hatchling pancake tortoise. The umbilicus is the bright yellow patch. It is rapidly disappearing.

Nearly Wordless Wednesday: Happy Sun Day!

I know. It’s Wednesday. But this weekend, we celebrated the sun! Because it came out, and it was warm.

Gimme some salad! And some vitamin D!

Gimme some salad! And some vitamin D! That tongue slays me.

And look at the newest zoo baby! It’s a pancake tortoise, one of my favorite species.

Maybe Spring will come again. There’s hope on the horizon!

Nearly Wordless Wednesday: A Year in Pictures

Happy New Year! What better way to recap the past year than to share my favorite images? You can click to enlarge.

Manouria impressa:

Chelydra serpentina: These were from eggs collected from a female who had been hit and killed on the road.

A few additional friends:

And finally, my favorite image of 2013:

I'll get you, my pretty!

I’ll get you, my pretty!

Thanks to The Dragonfly Woman for the wonderful idea to recap the year in images.

Attention, book lovers! We’re hosting a giveaway over on sj’s blog. Just comment to enter to win one of our two favorite books of the year. The drawing will be held on January 3rd, so there’s still time if you hurry!

I Needed Some Good News

I needed a win this week. I’m in a bit of a rough patch.

Rewrites are not going well at all. I’m experiencing a love-hate relationship with my novel. I vacillate between thinking this book might be my big break and feeling like I should scrap the whole thing before I embarrass myself at the beta-read stage. Stuff is not so great at work, either. Two of the computers I worked so hard to get set up are dead, less than three weeks after setting them up. They’re still under warranty, of course, but it means that I have to devote some of my precious writing time to getting them exchanged. And now my wedding ring is missing. I needed a win, and I got a big one.

You might think my big win came from the reptile department. Six new Eastern Box Turtles hatched this week.

 

No post is complete without a bellybutton shot.

No post is complete without a bellybutton shot. If those little splayed toes don’t get you, you need to see the wizard for a heart.

This is good news, indeed. But it wasn’t my great news.There was something even better.

And then there was this:

Is it wrong that I'm a little disappointed? I was hoping for books.

Yes. there is this. Not a book, to be sure, but it’s a start.

 

Which is good news because it proves Rowling hasn’t gotten HP out of her system yet. But there’s something even better. I know. I hear you asking me “But Heather, what could be better than a movie about the magical world you love so much, especially since Rowling is writing the screenplay herself?” I also heard you call me a dweeb under your breath. Don’t think I didn’t. I’ll ignore that part and answer your question. What could be better? This:

Better than a new HP movie!

Better than a new HP movie!

And:

Also better than a new HP movie

Also better than a new HP movie

It is now official. In a month, I get the incredible opportunity to have a giant sleepover weekend with sj and Amy! I am not sure I can handle all the awesome. I feel like the universe has given me a gift.Two of my favorite people. In the same place. At the same time.

Thanks, Universe! I needed this!