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!

Test Your Eyes

If you’ve been with me any length of time, you know how proud I am of my zoo. If you’re  new reader, the easiest way to catch up is to Google “tortoise belly button.” No, for real. You’ll even see some of my images right there on the first page. Those are my current contribution to society. I am so proud to be famous for something. It beats being infamous for anything. Anywho (which is a word, according to Urban Dictionary, and may be the only entry that has no inappropriate connotation. I don’t think. Let me double-check.), back to the zoo.

One mark of a great zoo is that they not only take excellent care of the animals in their collection, but they also support and participate in relevant conservation projects outside their own facility. I can easily say that my zoo does just that.

My zoo’s reptile department has been involved in bog turtle conservation and research for over 20 years. The late Director pioneered the project, and it’s still going strong. They’ve discovered some amazing things over their years of captive breeding and re-release. For one, bog turtle hatchlings are tiny, and they grow so slowly that it takes them 10 year to venture forth from their hiding places to search for a mate. When I say hatchlings are tiny, I do mean tiny.  Remember these little babies? They are giants compared to baby bog turtles. Don’t believe me?

Do you see it?

Look at how small the eggs are compared to my finger tips. Oh, wait. What else is in there?

How about now?

Look closely! You may already see it.

How about now?

Here’s the fun. There are TWO of them in here! See them? Larger than life.

They’re about the size of a June bug. Imagine traipsing around a bog looking for one of these! If you still can’t see both of them, here they are.

How cute are they?

For more information about the bog turtle project, visit The Nature Conservancy’s.  26 species of rare plants and animals call this nature preserve home. It’s such a great story about the great things that can be done in a teeny, tiny corner of the world.

Farewell To An Icon

Today is a bit of a departure from my usual posts.  Hang with me. I’ll be back to silliness in my next post, but I wanted take a minute to say goodbye to an old guy. Yesterday I received a sobering email. Yesterday the world lost Lonesome George.

He was the last of his kind, the sole representative of the Pinta Island subspecies of Galapagos tortoise. A $10,000 reward was offered to anyone who could find a female like him. None did. His keepers tried for a few years to breed him with a different subspecies but with no success.  For those of us who love tortoises, I think the hardest part is the awful finality of “The End.” I can’t even comprehend it.

Species go extinct everyday, frogs, insects, tiny mammals. Sometimes it’s part of the order of things. And sometimes it’s because we royally screwed up. It’s the hardest to take when I know that people are responsible. It’s hardest when that species is 800lbs. And when it has a name. And liked it’s head scratched.

We did it ourselves. Maybe not us, personally, but our kind. From the introduction of injurious species like rats and goats, which eat tortoise eggs and young and destroy habitat, to actual consumption by people. Sailors traveling through often loaded up their ships with tortoises so they could have fresh meat on their travels. Darwin himself survived almost exclusively on tortoise meat while he visited the islands. It was all on us. We didn’t know what we were doing, and we sure didn’t mean to, but we did it.

I was always rooting for the old guy, that he would make the money shot and reproduce himself. That a hero would step out of the wings with a female (or three) just like him.  I pinned on him the hope that we could make up for some of our mistakes. If we could save George’s line, then just maybe we could undo some of the other ugliness that we as humans have created. This time we didn’t quite make it.

All is not lost for Galapagos tortoises. There are a couple of other subspecies, and there has been real success in their reproduction. Numbers have climbed from 3,000 all the way to about 20,000 in the last thirty years or so. But these are managed populations. Lacking the ability to eliminate rats on the islands, human intervention is required to rescue eggs, which must be transported to an entirely different island where they are raised for several years before returning to their home. There is no wild for them anymore.

So what can we do? That’s an easy answer with difficult follow-through. I can strive each day to leave the world a little better than I found it. As there’s a direct link between carbon emissions ad global warming, I can choose a day a week where I walk anywhere I need to go. The Aldabra Atoll where the other giant species of tortoise lives, is only 26 feet (yes, feet) above sea level. It won’t take much of a global temperature rise for their entire habitat to be under water.  I can choose to not throw food out of my car window. Hunting the small mammals that are drawn onto the road for these easy pickings, thousands of owls are hit by vehicles each year. I can choose to buy fish from companies that do their jobs responsibly and in a sustainable manner. I can support an accredited zoo or aquarium. They have ongoing captive-breeding and conservation projects to help endangered animals survive. I can teach my kids that it’s not all about me. There are other people who share this planet.

My desire is not to be preachy here. My goal is to challenge us all to do a little better than we have done. I think we owe that much to George. We owe that much to ourselves. Despite what we read in science fiction, this is the only planet we have.

Farewell, George. We’re going to get it right one day soon.

Baby Galapagos tortoises

Me and my own giant tortoise friend.

My beloved Tex, Aldabra extraordinaire.

New Kids In Town

The rarest tortoise in the world. Possibly fewer than 400 left in the wild. It’s hard to wrap my brain around it. The incredible thing is that I now have the opportunity to wrap my hands around them. My zoo made international news last week with the announcement that they are the recipients of four of eight Astrochelys yniphora (ploughshare tortoises)  confiscated last year.

Here you can see the very unique dome-shaped shell.

 

The ploughshare tortoise is endemic to the island of Madagascar, as are many of the tortoises our zoo is already successful with. They’re from the northwestern corner of the country, and are rapidly disappearing due to poaching for food and for the pet trade.

The coloration really melts my butter

They look enormous, don’t they? They’re not. While they will one day top 100lbs, these particular animals weigh half a pound or less.

Look at that face! THAT FACE!

They possess a unique body shape. Their carapace (top shell) has a cartoonish roundness that I find endearing. With proper humidity and diet, the shell should remain like this. The common name comes from a weird protrusion on the front of males. It’s used to flip rival males over during battles over females. Amazing video here.  Whether the youngsters we have are males are females is unknown at this point. It will be at least 10 years before they are old enough to breed. Working with tortoises usually means thinking in the long-term.

I think this one might be my favorite of the four, which by default makes it my favorite tortoise in the entire universe

Welcome to my corner of the world, little friends. I have high hopes for you!

Surprise!

When I reported for duty on Tortoise Day, guess what I found waiting for me?

Pyxis arachnoides brygooi aka Northern Spider Tortoise

And its lovely counterpart

Pyxis arachnoides arachnoides aka Common Spider Tortoise. Its pale face is so beautiful!

These tortoises are endemic to Madagascar and both subspecies are critically endangered in the wild. It is only in recent years that these guys have been hatched successfully in captivity. Standard procedure for hatching reptiles is to immediately place the eggs in an incubator and wait. The magic with certain Malagasy species lies in actually cooling the eggs down for a few weeks first. Sounds weird, right? But unless captive eggs spend a few weeks in a wine chiller, the eggs never develop.

A better shot of its ghostly facial markings.

Four days after hatching

Here’s to a successful hatching season.

Update: My friend Michael left for Madagascar today. He will be attending the grand opening of the school. Our goal in that fund-raiser was $2000 for desks, benches and school supplies, and I am so happy to share that when all was said and done, together we raised $3200, all of which goes to the school. Thanks to everyone who shared or donated. You knock my socks off.

Consider Yourself Warned

Too much cuteness is herein contained.

This Wednesday was the best Tortoise Day in the history of such events. Spring is here, and the breeding projects staff have worked for are coming to fruition.

Baby Indian Star tortoise. Notice anything about the neighboring egg?

I got to hold this baby. It was still sticky from the egg. I am in awe of these tiny little creatures.

Too much cuteness! Too much!

The hatching process is called “Pipping,” and it can take days. The babies break through the egg with a little egg tooth on the end of their nose. Once they have broken through, they sit and ponder the universe while absorbing the remains of the yolk sac that has nourished them for months.

Come on out! It's a big, beautiful world out here!

We see you in there!

I like your hat!

Just hatched. Notice how its carapace is flat at the back from being squished up in the egg!

A little bit of tortoise trivia: tortoises have belly buttons as hatchlings.

Baby tortoises have a belly button from being attached to their yolk sac. It will disappear over time.

I went back to the zoo on Thursday to try again for some pics that didn’t work out, and two more babies were ready to  meet the world.

Technically still in the egg, right?

And who is this special one? Stay tuned.

Coming soon to a Nearly Wordless Wednesday near you!

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UPDATE: As of now, we have raised $1400 for desks and benches for the school in Madagascar. Only $600 to go! Thank you for your help in spreading the word on this project that will change children’s lives. If you missed the post, you can find it here.

Happy Tortoise Day: Bonus Edition

Each Wednesday, I spend my day happily up to my elbows in tortoise turds as I volunteer in the reptile department of my zoo. It’s one of the best things I do all week. Look at the photo below (keeping in mind that it’s about three times larger than life). What’s not to love? Even when it pees on me.

One of my charges. This guy (gal?) is about the size of a golf-ball . Photo courtesy of Phil Colclough

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You may already be familiar with my supervisor, Michael, who was featured in the revised edition of a wonderful children’s book. In addition to signing autographs and generally being awesome, he works closely with the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), which has undertaken a unique project. Tortoises in Madagascar are rapidly disappearing due to illegal collection for meat and for the pet trade. TSA has worked out a partnership with Antsakoamasy, a village in Madagascar. The villagers will protect the ever-dwindling population of radiated tortoises, and TSA will build a school for their children. The ultimate win:win.

The school is nearing completing and is set to open in March. What they need now are tables, benches, and school supplies for their students. Here is the exciting part. Furniture for the entire school will cost only about $1800 US dollars, and a only a few hundred more would purchase the necessary school supplies.  This is where you come in. Michael is headed to Madagascar with TSA in a few weeks to teach villages how to properly care for confiscated tortoises until the animals can be returned to the wild. I would love be able to help raise the funds before he goes.

My friends, this is an achievable goal. Every dollar will add up quickly. I think we can knock it out of the ballpark and help these kids whose families are working to help protect this precious and endangered animal.

.Important update to this project on February 29.

Adult radiated tortoise cooling off in the mid-day sun. Photo courtesy of Michael Ogle

Malagasy kids saying hey, photo courtesy of Michael Ogle