Monday, July 7, 2014

Keeping tortoises outdoors in the Pacific Northwest

Today I would like to show some pictures of my adult Russian tortoises in their outdoor habitat in our yard. My hope is that this will encourage more tortoise keepers to provide their tortoise(s) with an outdoor space.

Duke, eating weeds while sitting up on a rock - silly boy!
Keeping tortoises in the Pacific Northwest has a unique set of challenges in that it rains A LOT here for part of the year. However, it is actually possible to keep them outdoors all or most of the time from April through September or even October.

The benefits of keeping tortoises outdoors far outweigh the potential dangers, IF proper precautions are taken and accommodations are made. The natural sunlight provides heat and healthy UVB, which promotes healthy bones and a good hard shell. Being able to wander a much larger area keeps the tortoise's muscles strong. Wild Russian tortoises live in climates that are harsher than ours! They can THRIVE in our climate.

A morning view of our tortoise yard
In our climate, moisture can be a problem - Russian tortoises don't seem to mind chilly weather as long as they have the option to stay dry. We solved this problem by building the tortoise yard partially under the eves of our roof - about 2 feet out from our house wall stay completely dry, no matter how hard it rains. I have cut several buckets in half, and buried them under several inches of soil. They provide good hides for the tortoises to burrow into on cool or hot days.

A morning view of the tortoise yard- it gets much sunnier here in the afternoon!
Building an outdoor space doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. I used re-claimed materials off of Craigslist and from my neighbors' left over project lumber. The total cost out of pocket was $35 for this, which was for the decking screws to hold it all together.
I plan to expand the tortoise yard in the next few years, to go further out from the house, as well as going around the corner to the South side of the house. I already have some of the materials for this. I also am scavenging materials to build a little heated greenhouse, which would make it possible for the tortoises to live outdoors for several more months each year!

Jill and Mila basking in the morning sun
Russian tortoises are hardy critters, and even when the air temperature is only 60 degrees, the ground temperature in a sunny spot is often 30 degrees higher. You can help this by placing a flat dark-ish rock (or several) into the area the sun hits first in the morning. I've also set up little cold frames (miniature greenhouses), which I built from polycarbonate scraps I scored from a local garden center for a whopping $5 for a stack large enough to make 4.
Greenhouse made from polycarbonate remnants
I simply taped the triangles together using foil ducting tape, and ta-daaaa! Instant slightly warmer, dry basking area! These are very simplified versions of a cold frame.

Amber, hanging out in her pyramid in the quarantine area
My infrared temperature gun is an important tool - I quickly check the ground temperature in several spots before bringing the tortoises outside in the Spring. In the summer, the ground temperature can actually rise to 140 degrees F on a 90 degree (air temp) day (in that case, it becomes necessary to hose down the tortoise yard to cool it).
I like this one by Etekcity.
I bought it on Amazon, and it has worked for 4 years without needing its battery changed. 
When night temperatures drop below 58 degrees F, I bring the tortoises in at night. Otherwise, they stay outside 24/7 unless it is raining so torrentially that I know the gutters will fail, sending a waterfall over the edge of the roof into the tortoise yard.
The tortoises dig in for the night. Then as soon as the sun hits the tortoise garden (around 11am, since it's on the West side of the house), the tortoises come out to bask in the sunny spots. They wander around, graze, explore, and soak. By afternoon it really bakes out, and they retreat to the shady spots under the bushes. In the evening, they come back out again for another snack, or just to take a walk.

Indoors I have to separate the tortoises into multiple tortoise tables, based on who gets along with whom (or doesn't). Several are permanently in solitary confinement indoors. Outside, there are so many sight barriers, and so much space, that I am able to keep the tortoises together in the large tortoise garden. I keep a close eye on them to make sure nobody is being ganged up on, and I have a 'time out' area set up for them if separation becomes necessary. In the Springtime, the males couldn't be in the same enclosure because they kept fighting. Now they have mellowed.

A different view of the tortoise yard. I have blueberry bushes, gooseberry bushes, and raspberries growing in there. I've limbed up the blueberry bushes to where the tortoises can't reach the fruit or leaves, so they just benefit from the filtered shade. They like to eat the leaves off the raspberry vines, but the fruit is picked by us humans. The gooseberry bush is related to the currant family, so the leaves are safe for the tortoises. We pick the fruit for ourselves. I like that the bushes fulfill a dual purpose - food for us humans, and shade for the tortoises.

I have dug a nice deep trench under the wall of the enclosure, which I filled with cement pavers, so I don't have to worry about the tortoises digging out of their enclosure. My male Roz is an especially avid digger - he makes burrows so deep I have to reach in up to my shoulder to get him out. The walls of the enclosure are capped so the tortoises can't climb out either. Because I am confident the tortoises can't escape, it isn't too scary for me when one of the tortoises disappears for a few weeks for a snooze. I know they are healthy and have had plenty of food, so if the weather is hot or cold, I allow them to burrow down as they see fit. 

Lady (the very dirty tortoise shown above and below) disappeared at the end of April, and didn't show up again until last week. She is a big, heavy girl, so I wasn't worried. She came back out and went back to eating as if there had never been a 6-week nap. 

I provide water in several flat containers, such as the plant saucer in the picture below. Normally, this container is actually sunken into the ground, but one of the tortoises decided to dig under it, which pushed it up and out.

Some tortoises that are normally picky eaters or have a shy personality really blossom when they are outdoors. Little Jill (who isn't so little anymore!) is a shy picky eater indoors. Outside she eats like a piggy, and even bosses the bigger females around!

I had just hosed down the tortoise yard (including the tortoises) the morning before I took these pictures, hence the tortoises are unusually clean. They normally spend their Summer as grubby little piggies!

Now that it is summer, the tortoise yard has been grazed pretty bare - however, finding healthy weeds is no trouble here in the beautiful, green Pacific Northwest, so the tortoises eat well.

This year was the first year that my tortoises had babies - Timmy and Roz produced 6 beautiful, healthy hatchlings. I am keeping 1 of them, and the others have all been dibsed. Here are a few pictures:

At only about a month old, the babies only spend about an hour per day outside. The baby below is little Duchess (Baby #2), which I am keeping. Eventually I plan to breed her with Duke (our CB male, who is NOT her father) to produce some fine CB2 Russian tortoises in years to come.

Finally, I just have to show off my Amber - she is just shy of 9" long and weighs in at a whopping 1874g. She's a big, big girl! (freshly hosed down in the pic below... I plopped Duke into the pic for size comparison. He's a 5" male).

Monday, June 23, 2014

Baby Russian tortoise update!

All 6 eggs have hatched in the meantime, and all 6 Russian tortoise babies are doing great! I am keeping 1 of them, and the other 5 all have homes lined up. Yay!

The 6 baby Russian tortoises. 
A few days ago I took a bunch of pictures of the babies - it was a little bit like herding kittens, but a few of the pictures turned out well. I thought you might enjoy seeing them.

All 6 together after a good soak in warm water.
The babies are between 1.5 and 1.75 inches long, and weigh between 16g and 22g. It's pretty amazing how quickly these wee critters grow!

Look at the nice new growth on #3. She had a rough start (which you can read about in my blog post from a couple of weeks ago), but she is active, curious, is eating well and growing well. She got to move into her new permanent home this weekend, with my friend here in town. Yay!

Spunky little #1 (named 'Backwards Z' by my kids) is turning out to be quite the little alpha animal. At the tender age of 1 month, I have already observed her bobbing her head at another baby, and she tried to bite one of the babies that was approaching 'her' food pile. She is super friendly around humans though, so I am confident she will make a wonderful pet for the family that has chosen her!

I really like the coloring of #2 - she has those awesome dark and light stripes. She hatched looking as light as #6, and then parts of her scutes darkened significantly within a few days. It will be interesting to see what she looks like when she is bigger. Her Mama has a sunflower yellow shell, so I am hoping her coloring will be similar.

The above picture shows off her nice even new growth. I love the little black striations that are showing up!

Baby #4 charms with her funky little extra scute on her back. She is curious and eats like a little piggy.


Baby #5 has a really interesting shell pattern as well, with those bright yellow highlights in the dark background. It will be interesting to see what her new growth ends up looking like. Her shell is still a little bit lopsided, since she was rolled diagonally in her egg. This will normalize once she grows a little more.

 #5 has this funky little yellow circle on the front of her shell. I am not sure if it will stay, or will go away as she grows, but for now, it is awfully pretty!

Baby #6 was the last one to hatch, but she was also the fattest, largest one. She is on the go non-stop. She climbs higher than the others, runs faster than the others, and is very bold. This silly girl has gotten herself high-centered on a number of items she successfully climbed.


#6 is a little Houdini. She was constantly trying to run away!
Yep, there goes #6, running away as fast as she can. Silly girl. Doesn't know what's good for her!

The picture below shows the 6 babies soaking together. I've labelled their shells 1-6 so that you can see the differences. Again, they all have the same parents... so the variation of dark, light and designs is rather amazing to me. Yay for genetics!
In spite of having the same parents, the color variation ranges from very light to very dark!
Ok, and finally, because I'm a big goofball, I took pictures of each of the babies in a spoon. They won't stay small for long, so I wanted a picture of them in comparison to a common household object.

To give you an idea of the size of the babies... here is a spoonful of tortoise!
To learn more about how to raise healthy, smooth baby Russian tortoises, please read Tom's wonderful article on the Tortoise Forum:

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Russian tortoise Baby#4 hatched today!

Russian tortoise baby#4 made an appearance today! 

POP! And she was out!
Today was day#60 for the second batch of eggs, so I peeked into the incubator window with a flashlight. What did I see? Little eyeballs staring back at me! 

Baby must have been sitting in the incubator coming out of her egg for quite a while (could have been since yesterday), because her egg just about disintegrated in my hands when I picked it up to move her into the little bin. She had thoroughly shredded it and crawled right out of the egg into my hand.

Baby#4 is a beautiful, healthy little Russian tortoise. 
Welcome to the world, baby#4! She's happy, healthy, and has a tiny splitty scute. Scutes are the little partitions in a tortoise's shell, and a 'normal' tortoise has a set number of them. Occasionally (based on incubation temperature, genetics, and other factors), a tortoise hatches with a few extra scutes. This does not harm the tortoise at all, it just make sit unique. 
Freshly out of the egg, still with a fold in its belly and a small yolk sac.
I included a pic of her belly, because I thought you would like to see how the babies are folded in the egg. She will absorb that bit of yolk sac in the next day.

I still have 2 more eggs from this clutch in the incubator. I can't wait for them to hatch as well! 

I made a little collage of Baby#4

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Scary beginnings, but happy ending. Russian Tortoise Baby#3

Ok, today I want to share with you the somewhat scary beginning of our Russian tortoise Hatchling#3. I wanted to wait to be sure there was a happy ending. Rest assured, all is well now!
Baby#3, healthy and chipper now

First, I want to thank my very knowledgeable friend Melissa, who helped me and advised and encouraged me... at 10pm! She deserves a huge hug. I am so thankful she is a part of my life!
I wanted to share this, first because I think it's just amazing how nature is set up, and second, because I am amazed at how robust these wee babies actually are, given the proper care.

First, here is a picture of a normal hatchling's cute fat little belly a few hours after hatching. It is normal for baby tortoises to hatch with a small yolk sac still hanging out of their belly button. This then absorbs within a few days, and baby can go its merry way.
A normal hatchling's fat little belly. This is Baby#2.
Well, when I saw Baby#3 was pipping, I moved the egg to the container in the incubator with a moist paper towel. I did this because I was going to be busy, and didn't want baby to hatch onto the incubation substrate and possibly ingest some or get some stuck on its belly. In retrospect, I am so glad I did this!
I checked on it sequentially, and saw first a little head and leg... and then I checked back in a few hours later, and saw baby RT#3 out of the egg, but with a big orange thing under its belly. Yikes!
This is not what you want to see... a huge yolk sac!
I carefully took the baby out to investigate, and oh dear, it looked terrible! The yolk sac was huge, and there was some kind of pink thing on the end of it!
The yolk sac is way too big on this wee tortoise - she's a preemie!
I contacted my friend Melissa (who knows a lot more about tortoises and breeding than I do), and she assured me that this happens, and that it will probably absorb, with proper care. Baby should have probably stayed in the egg for a few more days, but might have kicked a hole in the egg while turning, which resulted in a premature hatch.
With Melissa's guidance, I made a little donut pillow out of a moist paper towel, and put baby on it, with the yolk sac in the middle. This way the baby's body weight wouldn't be squishing the sac. The moisture protected the membranes.
Baby#3 on her donut pillow
I then covered baby with a second moist paper towel, since babies like to feel covered. I closed the incubator, said a silent prayer, and went to bed. I knew the best thing for baby was to be left alone now.

Night night wee baby!
The next morning I shone a light into the incubator, but didn't open it. Baby was still on its donut pillow, but it moved a leg and opened its eyes when I shone the light in. It was alive! 

Towards late afternoon, I checked again, and baby had moved off of its little donut. I decided now was a good time to check on baby - and was amazed to see that most of the yolk sac really had absorbed.

Still not perfect, but SO much better!
I soaked baby in some warm water, and placed it back in the incubator in the container with moist towels. She was chipper, and walked around, even climbed up and over her little donut, which she no longer needed.

Soaking in warm water helps keep baby hydrated, and helps keep the tissue soft as it heals
Over the following days I continued to just leave her alone, except to soak her for 20mins each day. The yolk sac continued to absorb. The following pic is about 36 hours after hatching.

Much better - still just a little bit of healing necessary!
Here is Baby#3, when I was confident she would be OK!
No longer in danger, WHEW!
Now the yolk sac is fully absorbed, and the little umbilical wound is almost completely closed. The little pink 'tag' has gone inside now, too. She is going to be just fine. 
In another day or so, her little plastron will look completely normal
Also, interesting fact: She flipped herself back onto her belly all by herself right after I took this picture.

Welcome to the world, little RT Baby#3!
She has the cutest face! out, she'll charm the socks off of you!

Ps: I refer to this baby as 'she' and 'her' based on the fact that the incubation temperatures were high. Tortoises can be temperature sexed, with higher temperatures resulting in females, lower temperatures resulting in males. There is no guarantee, but it is VERY LIKELY that this is a female.