Good Morning, Zoo!

Most mornings, I am on the early shift. It’s my responsibility to open up our department and get us ready for the day. Every morning has its familiar faces and routines. Sometimes I have to stop what I am doing and take a moment to appreciate how lucky I am to spend my time with amazing animals.

Remember Al? He's a bit sleepy in the morning. That makes sense because he is essentially solar powered. He's most active once he has warmed up a bit.

Remember Al? He’s a bit sleepy in the morning. That makes sense because he is essentially solar powered. He’s most active once he has warmed up a bit.

Our outdoor turtle marsh bustles with activity on a warm spring morning.

A wood turtle peeks out from his night-time hiding place under the leaf litter.

A wood turtle peeks out from his night-time hiding place under the leaf litter.

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An eastern box turtle hits the snooze button in her leafy bed.

And sometimes we find a surprise guest.

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Hey, you’re not a turtle! A five-line skink takes advantage of a sunny spot and basks in the warmth of the morning sun.

 

I have some surprises to share with you in a week or so. I can’t wait! As soon as I can tell, I will. Until then, I’m keeping secrets…

Happy Monday! I have not drawn the winner from the giveaway. I’ll work on that later tonight. In the meantime, you can still go here to vote if you’d like. Entries are closed, but I’d still appreciate the vote. Unless we just won. Which we might have done. I’ll keep you posted!

I’m signing up for Camp NaNoWriMo, it’s a little less crazy than the November event because we set our own goals. I’m starting my first new project since getting my full-time job. Anyone want to join me? Go here to sign up! 28 days until the writing begins. I can hardly wait!

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!

Playing Favorites

I admit it. I know I’m not supposed to, but of all the little ones, I have a favorite. Don’t tell the others, please.

Astrochelys radiata, the radiated tortoise

I know that all the babies are adorable, but this one has a special place in my heart. The population of the radiated tortoise (Astrochelys radiata) has dropped by half in the last ten years. They have been wiped out of most of their range, so captive breeding programs are of critical importance. She’s the second one my zoo has hatched.

I call this one “she” because she was incubated as a female. Many reptiles have what is called temperature dependent sex determination. When the egg is first laid, the embryo within has no gender at all. The temperature at which it is incubated has an impact on whether they develop into boys or girls. Keepers can often produce the gender they need by altering the temperature at which they incubate the eggs. With this species of tortoise, higher temperatures usually yield more females. Lower temperatures tend to create males.

A perfectly proportioned tortoise in a tiny package

Here she is with her older sibling who was hatched in July. I have no idea whether the older one is male or female. Its egg incubated outdoors for a bit, so it was subject to unknown temperatures. Radiographs in a few years can tell if we’ve got a boy or a girl.

Pesky little sister

One thing I really enjoy about this baby is her personality. She is all go. I have no good recent pictures of her because she won’t sit still. From a biological standpoint, her curiosity isn’t a good thing because she might get eaten, but in captivity, it’s positively delightful.

I’ll be back on Monday full of my tales of adventure. And hopefully with some new pictures. Have a great weekend!

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.

Gratuitous Belly Button Shots

Remember this?

It’s now this:

One week old. See how much the umbilicus has shrunk? Eventually it will disappear entirely.

The hatchling Indian Star tortoises are growing well. On Wednesday, they had their first soak. This species is from a more arid region. Soaking offers them the opportunity to drink. And to poop. The little guys seemed to enjoy it. Their heads dipped into the water immediately, and they took their first drink.

First drink. For a size comparison, they're in an 11x9 food storage container. Sorry about the wonky angle.

There were occasional mishaps. But don’t worry. The water isn’t deep.

As helpless as a tortoise on its...oh, wait.

Nap time. Everyone is sleepy!

Note the red marks on their shells. Even though each tortoise’s pattern is unique, the colors will shift and change a bit over time. For accuracy of record-keeping, each tortoise is marked with fingernail polish on a different scute (rhymes with “scoot” or “cute”), and the marks are recorded. Scutes are the scales on the shell, and these marks are the easiest way to accurately identify animals in a collection.

I took them out into the sun for some much-appreciated vitamin D, which is essential to good bone development. They have ultraviolet lamps, of course, but nothing beats natural sunlight. Sadly, I have no pictures of this event because I was so busy making sure visitors didn’t pocket one! Maybe next time.

Stay tuned for more updates. I have more photos to share, and it’ still early in hatching season.