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.

Nearly Wordless Wednesday: Never Too Old to Learn!

At ZooCamp this week, we have animal visitors, a different one each day. It’s really fun. Though I’ve been at the Zoo for eleven years, I am learning stuff at camp, too. Today, our visitor was a chicken named  Agnes.

Guess what I learned today! Toddlers can’t say “Agnes.”  Ladies and gentleman…

Yes, it’s a chicken. They’re surprisingly soft. And tasty.

meet “Anus.”  I wonder what I will learn today. I can hardly wait!


What Happens When You Eat A Lot

Remember this little guy?

Look how tiny!

We discussed their hearty appetite, right? Yeah. Feed an Indian star tortoise well, and 7 weeks later, you get this:

Look! I can see myself! I’m pretty!

Yes, they’ve doubled in size, with no sign of slowing down. Impressive, no?

Wait! Don’t EAT the quarter! You might have a problem, little friend. I didn’t want to be the one to tell you, but…

Things That Make Me Happy

No surprise here. This post is kind of tortoise-y.

Aldabra tortoise getting a spa treatment. At least that’s what we humans call wallowing in mud.


The little Indian Star tortoises do more than tolerate being handled. They seem to enjoy it!


I interrupted the ploughshare tortoises at dinnertime.

Note the little guy on the right has food hanging from its jaws. Eating is always a good sign that all is well.

Thirty seconds earlier:

And this? This makes my heart so full it hurts.

The Latest Fitness Rage

I am so sore from yesterday’s workout that I can barely move. It was a great one. It was tough, and there were times that I wasn’t sure I’d make it, but I couldn’t stop smiling. No matter how bad the burn or how many times I got peed on. Oh, wait. Maybe I should start by explaining my workout. Yesterday, we moved the giant Aldabra tortoises from their off-exhibit winter enclosure to their summer digs. And a good time was had by all.

How do you move three large tortoises all the way across the zoo? Two answers. Very carefully, and pickup truck. They’re entirely too big for us to move them all at once. The girls and the hatchlings make the first trip.

And lift, and lift, and lift! Feel the burn! No, that's not me. I am taking the picture, silly.

The hatchlings? So glad you asked. This:

6 years ago. Time flies.

Is now this:

Yeah. Six years. Incredible, huh? 20 curls, please.

The ladies are taken to the clinic for weights and radiographs to check for egg development.

Patches REALLY doesn't want on the scale. So she peed and pooped all over the vets. I will have to try that at my next checkup. Lift, guys!

The bucket? Again?

And on to their new enclosure. Here’s where my part of the workout came in. My job was to convince these nearly 200lb tortoises to behave like ladies and not step on anyone’s toes. Not always easy. This job involved a lot of “brace yourself and hang on.” And a great deal of poop. Like hot yoga. (note: I have never participated in hot yoga, but this is how I imagine it would be.

There I am! Along with four other people and five tortoises.

Once the girls were safely deposited, it was time to move Al.

To put it into perspective, those guys are all six feet tall. Big Al lives up to his name. He likely tips the scales at 600lbs. I think I'll leave this one to the ones with the muscles.

Riding with Al was a bit of an adventure. His natural curiosity meant some squashed toes and pushing against 600lbs of “I want to see over THERE!” Feel the burn? And the bruise?

It was worth the effort! Doesn’t he look happy? I

Weekend Good News!

I am so, so proud of my zoo and my readers.This post left you with the good news that we had successfully raised enough money to buy furniture for the school in Madagascar. Thank you to everyone who donated and shared links. Together, we helped a village.

Knoxville Zoo Blog!

Michael Ogle, our assistant curator of herpetology here at Knoxville Zoo, is kind of a big deal in the world of tortoise conservation, although he is far too modest to ever admit it.  He’s been a key part of our success breeding some of the rarest tortoises in the world, often making us the first zoo to do so.  He is particularly knowledgeable when it comes to species found in the country of Madagascar, which led to the invitation from the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to travel to southern Madagascar last month to work with some of his Malagasy counterparts to help locals care for confiscated tortoises.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest factors in the demise of the critically endangered spider and radiated tortoises is the illegal pet trade (these tortoises are highly sought after by collectors in Asia) and the fact that they…

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Going High-Tech

Do you see what I see? NO! I'm not pregnant. Pardon me while I hate you for a few minutes. Although that was my husband's first assumption, too. Come to think of it, I haven't seen him since I showed him this pic...

What do you see in the photo above? EGGS! Well, technically follicles. They won’t be actual shelled eggs until after fertilization occurs. Three of them are clearly visible in this ultrasound. That’s right, I said ultrasound. They’re not just for mammals anymore. Oh, did I mention who was having the procedure?

Meet Patches.

I thought MY ultrasounds were a drag, but I was never suspended from a bucket. 4th time's the charm, right? NO! I'm really not pregnant. Just messing with you.

Patches is a female Aldabra tortoise. Given her size, it’s safe to assume she’s at least 80 years old, but who knows for sure? She was wild-caught, so she is likely even older than that. Think that’s old? Meet her suitor.

Please ignore my squinty eye. Either I am pretending I'm a pirate, or the flash was incredibly bright. Focus on my pal Al.

This is Big Al. He’s around 150. I love this tortoise, and I’ve been working on a Gal-Pal-For-Al campaign for several years now, so here we go. If Al can get the job done, we’ll have some of these in a few months:

Look at how tiny! And it's 6 months old in this picture! This was taken six years ago, and they're bigger than basketballs now. Another 15 years, and they might be big enough to breed!

Fingers crossed!

Hitting the Trifecta

Any zoo or breeding facility that produces one of the three subspecies of Spider Tortoise (pyxis arachnoides) from Madagascar can consider the breeding season season successful. A spectacular year would see the arrival of all three. Last Saturday marked just such a year for my zoo.

The first to hatch this year was the Northern Spider tortoise.

Pyxis arachnoides brygooi, the Northern Spider tortoise


Then we added a Common Spider tortoise.

Pyxis arachnoides arachnoides, the Common Spider tortoise which, despite its name, is endangered.


On Saturday, I stopped by the Herpetology department to soak the larger tortoises. While I was there, we checked out the incubator, and who should we spot?

Pyxis arachnoides oblonga, the Southern Spider tortoise


It’s cause for celebration when one of these species hatches. It’s a banner year that sees all three of them. I removed it from the incubator box and set it up in a container of its own. While I was giving it the first misting, I got the surprise of my life. I saw movement in the incubator box.


This egg is pipping. The process takes hours. Talk about being in the right place at the right time!

One hind leg out, one foreleg out.

It's sideways in its shell. Its hind leg is on the left, its foreleg is resting on the edge of the eggshell on the right. You can see the dark blotches on its plastron, which is how this species is identified.


April Fool’s!

So it’s April Fool’s day, and I can’t just let such an occasion go by without posting something. To celebrate Liar’s day, I usually tell someone that I’m pregnant (shut up, SJ!), but I have just moved Squish out of my room after three years, and I’m in no mood to tempt fate. So instead of lying to you, I’ll post the solution to Thursday’s Where’s Waldo post.

Here’s the picture that contains, much to my surprise, not one turtle, but two!

Do you see them? Of course, you do! No?

A little zoom?

How about now?

I bet many of you can see one already. But do you see the second one? Are you ready?

The neck ring on the baby on the left makes it look like a reflection on the water. This is why it took ten years for the researchers to recapture a re-released baby. They are tiny, and their camouflage is excellent!

I know. The one on the left hardly looks like a turtle, but you’ll have to believe me. Here it is out of the water.

The neck ring seems like it would be a dead-giveaway but is instead brilliant camouflage.

Here’s the funny part. The turtle on the left was the one I was actually photographing. The face on the right was a surprise!

Happy April-fool’s-Heather’s-not-pregnant day!