I want to go home. I’m currently seven hours south of the ole homestead at the Turtle Survival Alliance conference in South Carolina. I get to spend the next three days learning all about countless species from experts the world over. Turtles? Yes. Studying up on them? Absolutely! School’s my jam! At a conference where I do not know a soul? (insert needle-scratch) Ummm. People? I don’t do the whole human thing very well. I am shy, a little weird, and I have the social skilz of an octopus, minus the tentacles. Did I have tentacles when I was born, Mom?
I stepped out of the car into a city that smells of an odd mix of excrement and brackish water, and I was ready to turn around and go home. The brackish water I get. I’m right here on the coast. But poop? Why? Why the poop? I do not understand! I’m in the heart of the historical district. Is it historical poop? Maybe?
The hotel is a shack. Three room suites, valet parking, a mezzanine, thick walls where I can’t hear the neighbors scratching their bed bugs, maybe not even bed bugs. A shack. I will suffer through. But one of the bars of soap was already wet when I opened it, and that creeps me out more than a little. And everything from the soap to the lotion smells exactly the same.
Our opening event was at the South Carolina Aquarium. I had never been. It was all kinds of amazing. Let me show you.
I did make two friends right off the bat, Mom. Want to meet them?
And there were other cool things.
I found a drug store on my way back to the hotel, and I thought I should get some snacks because food is WAY too expensive here. $12 for hotel breakfast is way more than I want to spend. But I am a jinx, and as I was buying my stuff, the entire computer system shut down, and I had to stand at the register making awkward small talk with the cashier and manager for ten minutes. Ten long, painful, awful minutes. Come and get me.
The TV is broken. At least the one in my bedroom is, and I don’t want to go to the living room. That’s too much trouble. I mean, the TV comes on, but it only gets crappy channels. There were these two pink people who were walking through the jungle. Did I mention they were nekkid? Why were they nekkid? I go hiking all the time, but always with my clothes on. Don’t these people know there are insects and other things you don’t want close to the tender parts? Am I missing something?
The alarm went off, and I’m still typing my letter. But I will get out of bed. I will. Eventually. I can do this, Mom. I can learn good stuff and make new friends and eat all my snacks so I’m not spending a billion dollars on breakfasts. I can do this. I can.
On second thought… there are two beds here. I should go try out the other one.
Yesterday was our third day of volunteering at the Turtle Survival Center is South Carolina. We made mud pies and played in the water. Technically, we made hide boxes out of concrete and built recirculating water systems for turtles. Potato, po-tah-to.
My co-worker is chomping at the bit to get over to the center this morning, so you get a truncated view of yesterday’s fun times.
Today we go home. I’m going to miss this place. I wonder if Cappy would fit in a Nissan Juke…
It’s day two at the Turtle Survival Center. I may never leave. Yesterday we scrubbed 40 turtle enclosures and did water changes, and I fell in love with a water buffalo named Cappuccino. Today, we prepared all the food for both veggie eaters and carnivores for some of the most endangered turtles in the world. I didn’t include any pics of the meat-based diet. Let’s just say I cleaned some blood off the walls when we were done and leave it at that.
I have better pictures of the animals, but we have to wait until I am home because I am on my computer that has the screen that is pixelated and pink. You get my phone pictures. I put them in gallery form to make for easier viewing. Click to enlarge and read the caption.
I’ll try to have photos of the water buffalo tomorrow. What’s new in your world?
As you can perhaps tell from the title, I’m on the road. The boss, in his infinite graciousness (or in his desperation to get rid of me for a few days) budgeted to send me and a co-worker on a learning expedition. He gets to go to France and Madagascar and New Mexico. I get to go to Detroit in February and South Carolina in June. He might be trying to get rid of me for MORE than a few days. All he has to do is make it look like an accident, you know.
But I could not be happier. In February, I attended Amphibian Management School in Detroit, which was an incredible experience. And now, I am deep in the wilds of South Carolina, no cell phone reception and mosquitoes the size of small dogs. And I am happy. I’m at the Turtle Survival Center. I know. Pinch me. I can’t believe I’m really here.
We arrived last night (thank you, MapQuest, giant raspberry to Google Maps) in the middle of nowhere. A middle of nowhere that boasts 1,000 cornfields, a car show (sorry for almost greasing you, kid on the motorbike with no lights at dusk. But we both know it was your fault.) and enough Dollar Generals to keep Ravenclaw in Mousies for the rest of her life.
The nearest real grocery store is an hour away, but the most endangered tortoises and turtles in the world are right outside my door.
We’re here to volunteer. We brings some knowledge to the table already, but the director and chelonian keeper are prepped to drop some learning on us. After discussions with our lead keeper on what he’d like us to see, they’ve set up an agenda for us. We’re going to jump into some current projects involving plumbing and construction and
try not to get in the way or lose a finger help complete them. I want to learn construction, and I also want to learn what kinds of browse they feed here. We try to give our animals a varied diet, and now we can get some info on how to expand our menu.
I don’t have any images to share yet because we just got here. AND I don’t know what I am allowed to share. So you get something from my archives. Kind of a chef’s surprise.
We have a tour this morning, and I’m taking lots of photos, but if they say they’re just for personal use, you’ll just have to make a trip to my house to see them. In the meantime, random photos from my phone.
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.
One of the things I love about my job is the constant need to problem solve. It’s an unending puzzle. How do I get a fat snake to breed? How do I help said fat snake reduce her girth so that she is healthier? How do I keep each animal’s brain and instincts engaged according to their needs? As a zookeeper, we have to think outside of the box all the time. But this week, a puzzle popped up that was totally INSIDE the box; the nesting box.
Pancake Tortoises (Malacochersus tornieri) are one of my favorite species. They are weird and funny, and they have unexpected super powers. I spray the tortoises daily to raise humidity, and this week after I sprayed them, I found this (please forgive the quality of photos, or lack thereof. I had to use the camera on my little phone):
Tortoises are not domesticated animals. Although they have the ability to learn, they operate almost entirely on instinct. Pancake Tortoises, like most other tortoises, like to dig deep in order to lay their eggs. Like, really deep. When they nest, they dig, dig, dig with their hind feet, and if they hit a hard spot, say a rock or in this case, the bottom of their enclosure, they stop. Their tortoise instinct says that a shallow nesting spot is worst than NO nesting spot. They abandon the hole and move to higher ground. That’s what happened here. She dug, she dug, she quit.
Here’s the tough bit. I don’t know exactly what conditions she is looking for. Depth, of course, but she doesn’t know how deep the soil is until she starts digging. Other factors come into play. Some tortoises (and it can vary even within a species) will choose a warmer spot. Others will prefer a cooler one. Some want shelter, some want space. So what does she want? When I add soil to make it deeper, she might choose a shallow spot. When I add water so that it holds together, she choose a dry one.
This is where it gets fun. Remember that super power I mentioned? This species of tortoise can CLIMB! They live in kopjes, which are basically giant rock piles. To visit the neighbors or make a love connection, they may need to scale a few rocks. They especially like to climb…wait for it… when they are ready to nest. So if the soil is too deep, she can climb out of the house and go on walkabout. It’s for this reason that we keep a heavy cover on the enclosure.
My solution this time was to heap up a pile of wet soil that was wider than she is long so that she would have deep soil no matter which way she angled her body. She nested under the heat lamp last time, so that’s where I built Mount Pancake. Would it work? The next morning, here she was:
A couple of hours later, I came back, and she was nowhere in sight. I found her under her hide box, but the mountain looked the same. Most tortoises and turtles cover their nests so completely that you would never know they had been there. Had she nested? I checked.
The egg was so fresh, it was still slimy. But it looks good! How do I know? The egg couldn’t have been more than 90 minutes old, and it had already started to band.
Banding is the first indicator of fertility. It’s a sign that the embryo and air pocket have begun to make their separation.
This egg was immediately popped in the chiller. Without cooling for a few weeks at 65 degrees, the egg embryo will never develop. Once placed in the incubator at 88 degrees, it will take about three months before it hatches.
Stay tuned next week when I share photos from my most recent hatching and maybe let you know if The Professor has made any inroads on wooing his lady.
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?