The Box Turtle Diaries

I love my job. There is always something new to see, to do, to learn.  Every single day holds its moment of inherent wonder, and I hope I never lose that.

We hatch a lot of things at the zoo. Just click the “Tortoises and Turtles” tab at the top of the page if you want to see what I’ve been working with for the last three-and-a-half years. In my time, I’ve helped with the rearing of dozens of Malagasy tortoises. Today, I’ve added something new.

Back in the summer, I was in the process of closing up at the end of the day when I passed our outdoor turtle marsh and saw this:

What. You don't see it?

What. You don’t see it?

 

It’s a nest. Turtles and tortoises cover their nests really well to protect them from predators. Here’s my confession. The only way I knew it was there was because I saw Mom digging it earlier and noted the spot. The culprit was one of these:

Florida box turtle. Terrepene carolina bauri

Florida box turtle. Terrepene carolina bauri.

 

The next morning, I talked to the lead keeper. Not only was he supportive of me retrieving the eggs, he thought it would be a good experience for me to raise any offspring as well. Score! I was really pleased. The last thing I hatched on my own was a clutch of five-line skinks. That’s a cool story I’ll tell you one day. I have almost no experience with juvenile turtles, and I wanted to change that.

It didn’t take long to excavate the nest. In it, I found three eggs. Box turtle clutches average 5-8 eggs and females will lay multiple clutches in a season. I set them up in a bed of vermiculite mixed with an equal weight of water and hid them away in a secret location. And I waited. And waited. It takes anywhere from 2-4 months to hatch out a box turtle, depending on incubation temperature.

Within a few days, one egg had collapsed completely. I kept it for a while because once before, I had seen an oddly-shaped egg hatch successfully. When this one grew hair, though, I threw it out. A few weeks later, I candled the remaining eggs and saw blood vessels, a sign that the eggs were fertile. A few more weeks passed, and another egg began to indent. It, too, was bad. I candled the last egg and no longer saw blood vessels. Or anything at all. Rather than showing an embryo waving about in there, the egg was completely opaque. I haven’t given up on it yet, but it doesn’t look good. Win some, lose some.

All is not lost, however. A few weeks ago, I was out by the turtle marsh again and noted an Eastern box turtle behaving strangely. She was staring at the ground, neck craned, as if she saw something very interesting. Or tasty. I moved her aside, dug in the dirt, and look who I found! Click to enlarge.

Then, there was another. And another. The final total is four baby Eastern box turtles – Terrepene carolina carolina. They’re about the size of a quarter, but you’ll have to take my word for it. I never have change to prove it. My boss gave me permission not only to raise them, but to set up a whole exhibit for them. He didn’t have to say it twice!

Look closely to see the baby box turtle in the front.

Look closely to see the baby box turtle to the left of the fern in the front. See his yellow dotted keels?

 

The turtles are doing very well, and I get to channel my inner six-year-old and go out weekly to dig up worms and isopods for their dining pleasure.

The building these animals are housed in is part of our hibernaculum. Temperatures are gradually adjusted downward, and the turtles will soon do what they were designed to do – dig a hole in which to spend their winter. Before they are tucked in bed for the cold season, though, I will share more images with you. Because they are too cute not to! Soon. Very soon.

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Nearly Wordless Wednesday: Denial Ain’t Just a River

For all intents and purposes, it’s Spring. But some I know are pretending they didn’t get the memo. Remember the Pyxis arachnoides brygooi from a few weeks ago? Their lights are on, the heat has been turned up. It’s time for wakey-wakey. I get a few subtle hints they’re not  quite ready.

 

Some of them are dug in more deeply now that they were a few months ago, like they’re trying to hit some kind of snooze bar. Click to enlarge.

And then there’s my favorite.  Cracks me right up!

Yeah, that's lunch to the right of her. She'd rather sleep than eat. I know the feeling, don't you? And those are some for serious sand piles! She was in a hurry!

Yeah, that’s lunch to the right of her. She’d rather sleep than eat. I know the feeling, don’t you? And those are some for serious sand piles! She was in a hurry to get back to bed!

Happy tortoise day!

The One Where I’m Caught By Surprise

If you’ve visited in the last couple of weeks, you already know about the amazing things happening at my zoo. If you need to catch up, click here, here and here. I’ll wait. There. Ready?

I’ve been keeping a secret. When I went in last week and took photos of the baby box turtle, someone else was there, too. But I couldn’t tell you until now. Click to enlarge. They’re pretty amazing little tortoises.

These are impressed tortoises (Manouria impressa) from southeast Asia. This species is considered vulnerable in the wild, meaning that if things don’t change, they will be threatened with extinction. Impressed tortoises are commonly collected for food, and more recently for the pet trade. This trend is worrisome because impressed tortoises do not adapt to captivity well. Wild-caught animals are devilishly difficult feeders and often starve to death. Setting up a healthy captive breeding population is tricky under the best of circumstances. Last week, we hatched three. Hats off to our reptile department.

The red dots mean that they have been accessioned into the collection and are official. You know not to count your chickens before they hatch. The same rule applies to tortoises. Hatching is a difficult process, and not all hatchlings survive. All three of these did.

Not to be outdone, the box turtle had a surprise for me yesterday. Siblings. Click to enlarge.

The egg teeth are impressive, aren’t they?

And a gratuitous bellybutton shot. Because that’s how I roll.

Smile!

Smile!

 

Happy Friday! What surprised you this week?

Nearly Wordless – Wait, What Day Is It Again?

I always get a little discombobulated when we have a holiday. In my mind, it’s Saturday, which normally means no post at all. But I’m a giver.

I know it says nearly wordless, and look! Words! Bear with me. I got a new camera. It isn’t super-expensive or anything, but it’s my first dSLR, and it is intimidating. The how-to guide is 400 pages. I tried it a few times with little success. I hate things that prove that I am make me feel stupid, so I put it back in the box and continued to use my little camera. Until yesterday. I sent my little camera with my daughter on her mission trip and picked up the 400 page manual. I made it 25 pages, and then I gave up and just started taking pictures. I am in love.

Click to enlarge.

And then there are these. Click to enlarge them, too.

And we went to see my friend’s puppies last night. I’ll leave you with this.

You're welcome.

You’re welcome.

Bad Hair Day, Meet Bad Belly Button Day

There’s a new arrival at the zoo. I wanted to blog about it sooner, but I couldn’t. I’ll explain in just a bit. You remember Short Stack, the pancake tortoise that hatched in February?

Baby Pancake Tortoise

Baby Pancake Tortoise

The zoo has two pairs of pancake tortoises. Both laid eggs this winter that were intact and able to be incubated. This species is apparently a little tricky to incubate, and there can be as much as 40 days’ variation in hatch-times, unlike mammal gestation which can often be narrowed down to a two day window. A couple of weeks ago, Short Stack was joined by our second pancake hatching.

Each morning, keepers check the eggs in the incubator for signs if hatching, also known as pipping. The assistant curator knows how much I love this species, so he sent me an email to let me know the little critter was making its way into the world. I missed his email. Because I was already at the zoo. I got pictures. Crazy pictures.

Remember this turtle from last year?

The curve of the carapace (top shell) is incredible, but check out the wrinkles in the plastron (bottom shell)! I love how it has its little nose pulled in. Its face reminds me of Homer Simpson. And those bumpy things on either side are its legs.

See how its shell is folded over like a little burrito?

And how after a few days it looked like this?

It's a Spiny Hill turtle. It took it a couple of days to flatten out.

It’s a Spiny Hill turtle. It took it a couple of days to flatten out.

I thought all flat shelled tortoises and turtles developed in the egg the same way, with the sides folded down. Not Pancake tortoises! They actually develop rolled front to back. Look at how the baby flattens out over a few days’ time.

The reason it has taken so long to blog about this guy is because I don’t write about them until they have been accessioned (added) into the collection. And they can’t be accessioned without complete measurements of their shell. It’s hard to measure something that has been folded up like origami. It normally takes a couple of days for a tortoise to unfold completely. It took this guy about a week before it was flat enough to measure!

Day 5. Still a little wrinkled.

Day 5. Still a little wrinkled.

And here he is about two weeks after hatching, looking all ironed out. Finally.

.

I call him Squashy.

*** Nancy over at Not Quite Old asked why tortoises have a belly button at all. It was such a good question that I thought I’d answer it for those who are new to reptiles. Animals that develop in an egg are fed during their incubation by their yolk. They are attached to that yolk by an umbilical cord. After they emerge from the egg, the umbilicus closes. Sometimes that process takes a few days, sometimes traces can be seen a year later, but at that point it is nothing more than a mark on the shell.

Awakenings

This is my favorite time of year in the reptile department of my zoo. Spring is here, and that means one thing. When I come in on Wednesdays, I’m often greeted by sights like this:

(click on them to enlarge)

There are four babies hatching here. See them?

There are four babies hatching here. See them?

Pipping

How about now?

 

In this box, we have two different subspecies of Madagascan spider tortoise; Pyxis arachnoides arachnoides and Pyxis arachnoides brygooi. I can tell the difference from here. I’ll show you how.

P.a. brygooi like to burrow. They hatch, they burrow. P. a. arachnoides hang around on top of the substrate.

P.a. brygooi like to burrow. They hatch, they burrow. P. a. arachnoides hang around on top of the substrate.

These babies are all genetically pretty valuable, as both species are critically endangered in their native Madagascar. Any successful hatching is significant, but sometimes some offspring are even more valuable to the program.

There’s someone I want to you meet, but allow me just a moment to tell you its story. When animals are taken out of the wild and reproduce, that next generation of offspring is known as F1. It’s not unusual for animals to reproduce in captivity after being removed from the wild. Tortoises, rhinos, cheetah, elephants. The real trick is in getting an F2, that next generation, one that is truly captive bred. F1 and F2. Sounds like a series of astromech droids, doesn’t it?

Now allow me to introduce you to our very first F2 Common Spider Tortoise.

Sleeping in its egg.

Sleeping in its egg.

A couple of days later, it emerged completely after having absorbed the last remaining bit of yolk. And lest we forget the gratuitous belly button shot:

It may take a few weeks for its umbilicus to disappear completely. Currently there are tiny wrinkles around its belly button where it is closing up.

It may take a few weeks for its umbilicus to disappear completely. Currently there are tiny wrinkles around its belly button where it is closing up.

 

It’s roughly the size of a quarter, the very first offspring of both parents. There are very few, if any, other F2 of this type anywhere in the world. I am so proud of my zoo and their dedicated staff for what they have done to perpetuate this species! Well done, Michael!

Priorities: Or Why You Don’t Want Me On Pinterest

I haven’t owned a hair dryer in over a year. Okay, more like three. I’m a wash and wear kind of gal. Nothing fancy here. I know that comes as a shock to everyone. I just can’t see putting a lot of effort into *this* ‘do when there’s so little hope of a good outcome.

Every winter, I begin to question whether or not I should make the purchase. On days when my hair freezes to icicles walking my son to school, it seems like a good idea. But then it thaws out again, and I forget. Or I decide that rather than buiying an item I’ll use three months out of a year, I’ll just quit washing my hair altogether. My bathroom cabinet space is a valuable commodity, after all.  So drip dry it is. Or was.

That’s right. I now own a hair dryer. I bought it about three weeks ago. Have I used it? Yes. For the purpose for which it was intended? Um, no.

I went out shopping all wired up and fired up to find a dryer. Because it had a purpose! I needed one. The selection was daunting. It has been so long since I’ve bought one that I wasn’t sure which extra features were the most important. Or why. Good grief. A dryer is designed to blow air. Hot, cold, fast, slow. What else do you need? If I’m going to pay $50 for a hair dryer, it had better dry my hair, fold my laundry, and file my taxes. I bought the $10 model. And it works just fine.

Oh, wait. Maybe I forgot to mention why I needed it. For snake sheds, of course.

Reptile skin doesn’t grow, so the animal gets rid of the old skin as they get larger. Some snake folks I know find sheds that would normally be discarded and give them to me. I laminate them and use them when I give talks about my snakes.

Recently I acquired the discarded shed of an enormous eastern diamondback rattlesnake. It was heavy with sand from the animal’s bedding and couldn’t be laminated in that state, but it was too fragile to simply shake the dirt loose. The solution? A hair dryer. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I’ve spent the last three years drip-drying every morning, but my snake shed sent me straight to Target. I have my priorities in order. It was a spectacular shed, after all.

And this is why I am not on Pinterest. If I were, this is the kind of craft project you could expect from me:

 

How to create a beautiful memory creepy craft

Be sure to clean off those belly scutes! They're heavily keeled, so you'll have to pay close attention to get the dirt out.

Be sure to clean off those belly scutes! They’re heavily keeled, so you’ll have to pay close attention to get the dirt out.

 

What a great way to repurpose all that packing material from buying craft supplies on Ebay!

Be sure to put newspaper underneath to protect your floor. What a great way to repurpose all that packing material from buying craft supplies on Ebay!

There's loose dirt on the inside, too, because the snake took its close off inside out. For the best laminated shed, be sure to get that dirt off, too.

There’s loose dirt on the inside, too, because the snake took its clothes off inside out. For the best laminated shed, be sure to clean that, too.

 

Next, simply run it through your heavy-duty laminator, preferably using a carrier sleeve. Don’t have a laminating machine of your own? Loser No worries! Run down to Staples or Office Depot and use theirs. I’ll wait.

Tip: print a small photo of the snake and laminate it with the shed, along with the snake’s scientific name.

The final result:

Note the eye caps on the right. It's difficult to find a shed with the head intact. We'll add this one to our gold medal shed collection.

Note the eye caps on the right. It’s difficult to find a shed with the head intact. We’ll add this one to our gold medal shed collection.

Well done! Now you’re ready to add it to your collection.

Your collection is growing! Way to go!

Your collection is growing! Way to go!

 

Stay tuned for the next installment of Creepy Crafts With Heather when we learn how to shellac an elephant turd!

It’s About Time!

I’ve officially been taking care of tortoises in the Herpetology department at my zoo for two years now. Over that time, I have to admit I’ve found some favorites.

Ploughshare tortoise. One of the rarest animals in the entire world. There are fewer than 400 left in the wild.

Ploughshare tortoise. One of the rarest animals in the entire world. There are fewer than 400 left in the wild. Their carapaces are etched to discourage theft. It does not hurt the tortoise.

 

 

Here's the fun. There are TWO of them in here! See them?

Bog turtles. This is one of my zoo’s special long-term projects. Actually, any tortoise breeding program is a long-term project, since it can take 10-25 years for them to get to breeding size.

 

The curve of the carapace (top shell) is incredible, but check out the wrinkles in the plastron (bottom shell)! I love how it has its little nose pulled in. Its face reminds me of Homer Simpson. And those bumpy things on either side are its legs.

Spiny Hill turtle hatchling. The hatchlings are always my favorites. I love how squished up it is. After hatching,  this turtle unfolded into its flatter and more proper proportions.

 

For 2 years, my favorite adult tortoises have been the pancake tortoises, Malacochersus tornieri.

Please excuse the weird green color. Without a flash, my camera likes to break down the light from the ultraviolet lamps into greens. Pretty, right

Please excuse the weird green color. Without a flash, my camera likes to break down the light from the ultraviolet lamps into greens. Pretty, right? Click to enlarge and really get a look at that face!

 

They are unbelievably cool. Instead of being rock-hard like other tortoise shells, the shell of the pancake tortoise is rather spongy.In the wilds of eastern Africa, they defend themselves by wedging tightly into narrow crevices in rock.  Their conservation status in the wild is listed as Vulnerable, which means that their numbers are okay at the moment, but sudden loss of habitat will leave them in serious jeopardy. Without the rocky terrain, they cannot survive.

For two years, I have been wishing and hoping for babies from our two pairs to no avail. The females haven’t been the most maternal and have scrambled the eggs before they could be retrieved. So frustrating! Until now.

Last week was the best week ever. Within 24 hours, I finished my novel, hit a major blog milestone, and got to meet someone new and precious. Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you Short Stack.

Hatching is serious business. And kind of messy. We have two pairs of adults - a pretty pair, and a less attractive pair. Can you guess the parents of this one by looking at the egg?

Hatching is serious business. And kind of messy. We have two pairs of adults – a pretty pair, and a less attractive pair. Can you guess the parents of this one by looking at the egg? Click to enlarge

 

This species is interesting when it comes to hatching, too. The incubation range is anywhere from 99 days to about 237 days. That’s a huge range. Other species tend to be a little more predictable. This guy (gal?) hatched at the lower end of the range, which is what caught me by surprise. Personally, I wasn’t expecting Short Stack to make an appearance until April. I do love surprises!

See that tiny crumb on the end of its nose? That's called an egg tooth, and it's what a baby reptile uses to shred the egg from the inside when it's time to hatch.

See that tiny white crumb on the end of its nose? That’s called an egg tooth, and it’s what a baby reptile uses to shred the egg from the inside when it’s time to hatch. Let me know if you don’t see it. I’ll show it to you in the next post.

 

Here’s some more exciting news. There’s another egg in the incubator, this one from the other pair. It has been candled and seems to be developing well.

 

So that’s my week. What exciting things are going on in your world?

The Post So Exciting I Forgot to Title It.

In yesterday’s post, I featured photos of two tiny bog turtle babies. They are roughly the size of a June beetle and hide like you wouldn’t believe, so I was delighted to be able to photograph them this young. As promised, I’ve got some other tortoise-y cuteness to start your weekend with.

For starters, here’s our newest hatchling.

That’s a bit of egg shell on its carapace. A brand new hatchling.

It’s a Pyxis arachnoides brygooi, or Northern Spider tortoise, one of the species of dwarf tortoises from Madagascar. The breeding program at our zoo is top notch. This is the ninth brygooi to hatch this year, and the 28th overall. Not too shabby considering that the first successful hatching in the entire country didn’t occur until six years ago. And you guessed it. That first hatching occurred at our zoo.

Because everyone loves a belly button image. Look at that little face!

And now an update on a pair we’ve been following for awhile. It’s Nash and Navi! The link takes you to the day that they hatched, way back in February.

They have really grown, but they’d still fit in my pocket. If I was so inclined. And if they wouldn’t pee on me.

Back in July, the pair weighed 52 grams combined. That’s the equivalent of about 17 American pennies. Nash was the bigger of the two by about 2 grams. Today, they tip the scales at 30 grams each! Navi was the tiniest of all the Indian Star hatchlings, but she has caught up. I wonder if she’ll pass her sister.

She looks like she’s been dining on powdered sugar doughnuts. It’s calcium powder, good for building a strong shell.

To get an idea of her size, that’s a clover bloom on her right.

And one more friend before we go.

Pyxis arachnoides oblonga, the Southern Spider Tortoise.  This one is my current favorite in the collection. Because I can play favorites if I want to.

Happy Friday, friends. If you’d like more tortoise updates in the future, be sure to say so in the comments. Someone I know doubts that people enjoy my tortoise posts as much as I do.

Nearly Wordless Wednesday: Introducing…

Nash and Navi!

Do you see the stars beginning to emerge on Navi’s back? She’s the one at the top.

Sarah Wilken over at Oodles of Scruples (yes, I linked you to my favorite post. You’re welcome!) came up with the winning submissions, so she is the winnnnah! Be sure to pay her a visit and congratulate her!

This photo was taken two months ago. Not so much yellow peeking through.

Sarah, shoot me an email over at zooheatheroneatgeemaildotcom with your address so that I can send you your fabulous prize! An 8×10 of the Stars themselves. No, not the ones in the sky. The tortoises. Try and keep up, guys!

The post didn’t hit 1000 views, but don’t lose hope! The next time one of my posts gets 1000 page views within a couple of days, I’ll do another giveaway.

Parting shot:

They wander by themselves all day, independent little critters. But when it’s time to rest, they find each other. Every single time.