Thursday, December 19, 2013

A helpful guide to determining the sex of your Russian tortoise

When you bring home your new Russian tortoise, you may wonder if you have a boy or a girl. If you bought it at a pet store, there is a good chance the sales clerk told you some nonsense about the tortoise being a baby and whatever sex they happen to think it is based on who knows what. You most likely have a male - the pet trade prefers to sell males because they stay smaller, they are easier to hatch (since they require a lower incubation temperature), and they won't produce eggs. However, some females do show up at pet stores, and many show up second-hand on Craigslist or other online marketplaces. Determining the sex (male or female) of Russian tortoises is fairly straightforward, based on the shape of their tail.

Are you a 'Bo' or are you a 'Bonita'?!
Unlike other tortoise species, Russian tortoise males do not have a concave plastron. The body shape of males and females is roughly the same, with small non-gender-specific differences from one animal to the next that are due to the different subspecies and environmental factors. Both can have a little 'claw' at the end of their tail (all males do, not all females do, but some females do).

Size at maturity can be one clue: mature males are significantly smaller than mature females: males are usually about 5" and rarely grow larger than 6 inches (exceptions do occur), while females as large as 12 inches have been reported. Most mature females end up about 8-10 inches large.

The easiest way to tell if you have a male or a female is to look at your tortoise's tail. I have drawn you a diagram, and will show actual photographs below. You can click on the diagram to enlarge it.

A quick diagram of male and female tails in Russian tortoises
The very simplified description is that males have a long, skinny, pointy tail in which the cloaca (vent) is shaped like a slit, and is close to the tip of the tail. This makes sense, since the male needs to be able to bring his reproductive organs close to the female, and the length of the tail needs to be able to accomodate his penis. Males often carry their tail tucked to the side.
Females have a short, fat, wedge-shaped tail, in which the cloaca (vent) is shaped like an asterisk (*) or pucker, and is closer to the body. This is important for easier passing of eggs, which are surprisingly large!
A Russian tortoise egg - woah, that's big!
The vent gets stretched out during egg laying, so a mature female's tail will look different after she has laid eggs.

Please keep in mind that a small tortoise (4.5 inches or smaller) will usually look female. My male had a small stubby tail until he was almost 5" long (SCL) and then his tail suddenly sprouted and got more pointy. Here is a picture of a baby Marginated tortoise's tail, which are sexed the same way Russian tortoises are:

This little Marginated tortoise looks female,
but we won't know for sure until she is MUCH bigger.
Below is a picture of my male when he was still very young. His tail was not very long, but I was pretty sure he was a male, because his cloaca (vent) was slit-shaped, and the tip was pointy.

A young male Russian tortoise's tail
As mentioned before, a male Russian's plastron (flat belly shell) is NOT concave as it is in e.g. Greek tortoises.
His tail wasn't very long yet,
but he carried it tucked to the side,
and the point was much skinnier than it would be in a female.
This is his tail now. It still isn't super long, but it is definitely longer, he carries it to the side, and his cloaca is slit-shaped:
A young male's tail.

A young male's tail with the slit-shaped cloaca (vent)
Here is a picture of a mature Russian tortoise male:
Woah, now that is one heck of a male tortoise tail. Long and pointy.
Next up, some pictures of female Russian tortoise's tails. First, some young, immature females. Mila was about 5" when I took this pic, but since our male showed no interest in her, I assume she was not mature yet.
This is Mila, she was about 5" long when I took this pic
When I first got Jill, she was only 4.5" long, so although her tail looked female, I wasn't 100% sure she was indeed going to keep a small, stubby tail. Now at 5.5" long, her tail remains small and stubby, so I am certain that she is indeed a girl.
Jill was only 4.5" long when I took this pic.
Next, the fat and wedge-shaped tail of a mature female who had not yet laid eggs yet:
This is a 6.5" female's fat, stubby tail.
This one has some shell damage, so please disregard the shape of the pygal scute above the tail.
The next picture shows the asterisk (*) shaped vent of a female. Note how the vent is fairly close to the body, and even though the tortoise is close to 8" long, the tail is TINY. This female has never laid eggs.
A large, mature female's tail before she ever laid eggs. Note the * shaped vent.
And finally, here is a very wedge-shaped tale of a very large female:
Mature female tortoises actually have fat deposits in their tails.
This gives them their unique shape.
This female has laid eggs, so her vent is no longer a little asterisk-shape, but rather, a pucker. The skin of her cloaca had to stretch significantly to let the eggs out, and while the muscles contract later to close everything up again, the skin will never look the same as a 'virgin' tortoise's tail.
The cloaca of a tortoise female that has laid eggs.
The shape of the anal scutes of the plastron, right above the tail, can vary widely in young Russian tortoises, and is not a reliable method to sex a tortoise, unless it is fully grown.

I hope this helps you determine whether you have a male or a female Russian tortoise. If you just keep one, then in the grand scheme of things, it really doesn't matter... one of our female's name is 'Timmy' - named by my oldest son when we first got her.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Comparison of healthy vs overgrown tortoise beaks

Today's theme: does your tortoise's beak look healthy? Below I've posted 2 pics of tortoise beaks, one of torts with healthy beaks, one of tortoises that badly need a trim.

A healthy tortoise beak should be short and the 'chin' should be visible. Younger tortoises often have little ridges in the front, which is completely fine. There shouldn't be a strong over or under-bite.
Some examples of healthy beaks
I am showing 3 different kinds of healthy beaks:
-on the left, one of a tortoise that still has the little ridges in the front (which is totally fine, as long as the beak is short)
-one of a tortoise that has a smooth, short beak (top right)
-one of a tortoise that previously had an overgrown beak, and has had his beak trimmed and filed (bottom right).

An overgrown beak may just be long in the front, which is really easy to trim... or it may be overgrown all around, making your tortoise look like an old dinosaur. A badly overgrown beak will need to be trimmed by a vet, or sometimes local rescue groups and reptile specialty stores offer free or cheap trims. Every year I help trim many beaks for my friends and at our local rescue group meets. If done properly, it doesn't cause much stress to the animal, and can significantly improve its quality of life. An overgrown beak can hinder eating, and in some cases, prevent the tortoise from pulling its head into its shell.

Some examples of overgrown beaks, in need of a trim
There are many factors that play into causing an overgrown beak:
-too soft foods
-no stones etc. for the tortoise to rub its beak on
-underlying internal issues, such as metabolic bone disease (MBD), caused by lack of calcium and UVB
-different growth rates - I have one tortoise that needs her beak trimmed twice a year, while the others never or only rarely do. 

If you can't find someone to do it for you, you can also use an emery board to gently file it bit by bit. If you would like to learn about how to gently file your tortoise's only slightly overgrown beak, you can watch a short video here:
If the beak is very overgrown, then this may take a while.

If you feel confident you can trim your tortoise's beak (let someone experienced show you how if necessary!), here is a description of how: For small tortoises I use the clipper method, because the vibration and noise of a Dremel just seems to be a little much for them. For larger tortoises, a Dremel may be a better option. If you have experience with this kind of thing, it is possible to do it yourself, BUT don't attempt this until someone has shown you how!

Jill has a very healthy beak. I've never had to do anything to it. 

A view of Jill's healthy beak, from the side. 
Once the beak is nice and trim, it really helps to feed on a slate, and to have different shaped rocks and a cuttlefish bone, too, in the enclosure. These will help maintain a healthy beak. I also like to make the tortoises work for their food a little - I don't chop anything up. Feeding tough-to-chew foods will help, as well.

If your tortoise doesn't touch its cuttlefish bone, you can make it more enticing by soaking it in cucumber juice or carrot juice (the orange color helps, too!). I also sometimes offer eggshells, boiled to sanitize them. Some of the tortoises that never touch their cuttlefish bone, do help themselves to the eggshell, which contains calcium, too.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Birthday, Buttercup!

Our 'big' little Marginated tortoise Buttercup turned 1 year old today. She has grown so much since I got her in July! Today she weighed in at 138g.

One whole year old! 
I am just amazed at how quickly baby tortoises grow. Buttercup has more than doubled her weight in 4.5 months! Her new growth is very smooth, and her initial pyramiding (from the time before I had her) is less noticeable.
She is more than twice the size she was when I first got her. 
I suspect that by next year, I will need two hands to hold her safely... Happy Birthday, wee Buttercup!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Prepping the Russian tortoises for brumation (hibernation)

This year the Russian tortoises are hibernating (brumating). I have wanted to do this for several years now, but was scared of it. I have done a ton of research over the past few years, and am confident that I can safely allow them to hibernate now.

Timmy, Mila, Roz and Jill get to hibernate this year
Hibernating your pet Russian tortoise is not absolutely necessary. I know several very knowledgeable keepers who have never hibernated their tortoises. However, my Russian torts have 'tried' to hibernate every year. They stopped eating, and I had to wake them up daily to try to keep them from shutting down for the winter. Because they were at room temperature (which is NOT a safe hibernation temperature!), they lost weight during this time. Everyone bounced back and started eating again in the Spring, but this year I want to let them hibernate properly.

These are the 4 Russian torts last Spring after NOT hibernating. 
Several considerations are important before attempting hibernation:
-The tortoise must be healthy. No worm infestation, no protozoan infection, etc. - it may be a good idea to have the vet check a fecal sample to be sure. If your tortoises live outside, it may be a good idea to treat them with panacur (fenbendazole) just to be on the safe side.
-The tortoise must have a healthy weight. There are calculators online for different tortoise species that will tell you whether your tortoise is within a healthy weight range. As a general rule, a tortoise should always feel heavier than expected when you pick it up.
-You should have had your tortoise for more than a year. If you have had it for a shorter duration, wait a year - it's too risky, especially if you don't know much about its' history.
-Location. Where will you hibernate your tortoise? Whether you attempt a fridge hibernation (read how first!) or hibernate in your garage (not a detached shed unless you can control the temperature!), it is important that the temperature is right around 40 degrees F (4.5 degrees C). If it is warmer, your tortoise will burn too many calories. If it is colder, your tortoise may freeze to death.
-Hibernation container: be sure that air can come in, but that rodents cannot. The tortoise will not be able to move away to protect itself during hibernation. Avoid tragedy - better safe than sorry!

Lady, our large female,  is at a healthy weight,
but we have only had her since last April, so I won't hibernate her yet this year.
Timmy, Mila, and Roz are going down for hibernation (brumation) today. Jill is about 2 weeks behind them, since the room she is currently in is very warm and she is still very active. I'll be moving her to the big table to start slowing her system down once the other 3 are packed up. Lady, whom I have had for less than a year, is going to stay up - I want to be very sure that she is healthy before she gets to hibernate (probably next year). I've raised the temperatures in the room her tortoise table is in, and she is still up every day, basking, soaking, and eating.

Allegra the rescued redfoot tortoise DOES NOT hibernate!
Not all tortoise species hibernate. Redfoot tortoises, yellowfoot tortoises, sulcata, some Greek tortoise subspecies, pancake tortoises, leopard tortoises and several others stay awake. Please be sure to research whether your tortoise species hibernates before attempting this!

The first step in hibernation preparation is to provide a fasting period that still includes regular soaking. You don't want any food to be left in your tortoise's gut, because it could rot or ferment in there and cause your tortoise to die. Timmy and Mila naturally stopped eating, and spent most of the days and nights in their hide already. I stopped offering food 3 weeks before hibernation start. For the first 2 weeks, I soaked them every 3-4 days, and left the basking lights on. For the last week, I turned off all basking lights, and soaked them every 3-4 days. At this point, their guts were empty.

When 3 tortoises soak in warm water for 30 minutes, and the water stays clean...
you KNOW their guts are empty!
Over the course of last winter, I measured the temperature in different parts of our garage. I found that even on the coldest days, the temperature on a shelf near the furnace never dropped below 40 degrees F (4.5 degrees C). This is perfect for hibernation. However, I have also found that the garage has a tendency to warm up to 50 or even 55 degrees F on warmer winter days, so I have decided on using the refrigerator hibernation method after a few days of 'cool down' in the garage.

Some people let their tortoises brumate naturally outside - however, for me this is not an option, as it rains torrentially here for much of the Fall and Spring, and I would be worried that the sleeping tortoises would flood and drown inside their burrows. A more controlled environment is more suitable.

Jill, having her pre-hibernation weigh-in
My tortoises are worm-free, and have a healthy weight. Tortoises should not lose more than 1% of their weight during hibernation. I recorded each tortoise's weight in the little booklet I keep.

Next, I placed each of the tortoises into a box filled with coconut coir. I figured that they would like the familiar substrate, and that the coir would provide a little insulation.

Roz is not entirely thrilled about being stuck in a small box
Next, I placed the 3 boxes into a small 10-gallon terrarium that I had filled with packing peanuts and newspaper for extra insulation. With the wire mesh lid on, placed up high on a shelf, I felt that the tortoises would be safe from any rodents that might make their way into the garage.

My little helper, posing with the packed-up tortoises
I placed the terrarium in the garage, to let the tortoises cool down to 50 degrees for a few days. This plan backfired just a little - two days later I walked past the terrarium, and found Roz OUT of his box, wedged vertically between his box and the glass. I got the terrarium down, and found that all 3 tortoises had dug out of their boxes, and were slowly moving around in their little glass safe box.

Thankfully, I had been monitoring our refrigerator temperatures, and so I knew that the crisper drawer held a steady 39 - 41 degrees F (3.8 - 5 degrees C). I lined one of the crisper drawers with newspaper, then placed some old towels inside. Then I placed the tortoises into the drawer.

I'd like those sleeping tortoises with a side of carrots, please.
Next, I put several more layers of towels over the tortoises, tucking them in all around. I expected them to move around a little for a few days, and they did. I had to re-tuck them in a few times, because they moved out of their towel nest. Even with steady temperatures of a modern fridge, I didn't want them down on the plastic or too close to the back of the fridge. After day 4 they stayed put.

Night-night, little tortoises!
In the meantime, Jill is safely tucked into this drawer as well. I will be checking on them and weighing them once a week.
Counter to what is commonly believed, it IS safe to carefully handle your tortoise during brumation, as long as they are not warmed up. In fact, checking their weight and making sure they are healthy is very important. The plan is to let them hibernate for 10-12 weeks, so I will be waking them up in mid-late February.

1.) Even during brumation, tortoises continue to breathe, although very slowly. The refrigerator needs to be opened at least once daily to allow fresh oxygen to come in! 
2.) If you are doing a refrigerator hibernation, make sure that the temperatures don't ever drop below freezing. Measure the temperatures in the actual location you plan to place your tortoise - some refrigerators have cold spots (you know, like when the milk suddenly freezes). Use a good digital thermometer with a max/min record.

Not as important, but possibly a useful hint: If you frequently have guests, or someone will be house-sitting for you, you may want to put a little sign on the crisper drawer to avoid shocked reactions at accidentally coming across a sleeping tortoise while searching for an apple!

This blog post narrates my procedure, but PLEASE do lots of research on your own before attempting this yourself! Here are a few useful articles about safe hibernation that I read and found useful:

Friday, November 1, 2013

Baby Marginateds update

Today's post is just for fun: The baby Marginated tortoises continue to thrive and grow - they are such a joy! Caring for baby tortoises definitely is more work than caring for adults or sub-adults... but these wee little treasures sure make up for it in cuteness. They are healthy, and active, and I have a feeling they will be big before I know it. 

Bubbles, hatched Sept 8, 2013
First, here is Bubbles. She is the darker of the two babies, and she is actually a full month younger than Blossom (the lighter baby). She was just so huge when she hatched, that she slipped in with the older babies when the breeder offered me the batch to choose from. She was less than 2 weeks old when she arrived here.

Bubbles, hatched Sept 8, 2013
Bubbles is the darkest of all the babies the breeder had, and she was 16g when I got her. She was 32g when I weighed her a week ago. I would be worried about her growing too quickly, but her growth is sooooo smooth. I am curious to see how big she ends up being as an adult!

She won't fit in my hand like this for long!
Bubbles is very friendly, and when it comes to food, downright greedy. She will climb over the other two to get to a leaf she wants. She stomps through the water dish, climbs up and over the half-log hide, and then digs in really deep in the hot humid hide (which is a little rubbermaid shoebox, with a hole cut out for a door, filled with moist coconut coir and sphagnum moss).

Just a bit more cuteness for you to enjoy
Whenever I walk by the baby tank, Bubbles stomps up to the front to see if I am bringing any food. Oink!

Blossom, hatched Aug. 8, 2013
Blossom, the lighter of the Marginated babies, is doing really well, too. She is a little more shy, but she eats well, is active, loves to explore, and really loves to bask, bask, bask. She spends more time under the basking lamp than either of the other two - I have to make sure to mist her shell often to keep it from drying out (which can result in pyramiding).

Blossom, hatched Aug. 8, 2013
When I weighed her a week ago, she was 24g, which is smaller than Bubbles, but still an acceptable weight gain for a hatchling. Different tortoises grow at different rates. Her mother may have been younger and smaller, or her unusually light coloring may mean she is a bit of a genetic oddball. Only time will show. As long as her growth is steady, I am happy.

Blossom on the left, Bubbles on the right.
When keeping multiple tortoises, it is always important to make sure one is not bullying the other, and that one is not hogging the food, heat lamp, etc. - this is not the case with my 3 (so far). As they grow, I will continue to monitor them closely. Their enclosure is set up in our living room, so I see them all throughout the day.
Bubbles, with her nice round shell
I think it makes a big difference where in your home you keep your pets. If they are out of the way, it is easier to forget about them, to accidentally neglect them. We keep our critters in our living room, dining room, and entryway - places we pass by many times every day. We enjoy visiting the torts on our way past.

Blossom, looking cute and dainty
Walking past the tortoises, or being able to see them from the couch (or during the Summer, from the outdoor seating area) also has the advantage that we can see if there is trouble: if one of them flips over, or one is being bullied, or any number of other things that can happen. Of course there is the fact that they are just plain fun to watch...

Some day, I will have to hold each of them with two hands!
Have I mentioned that baby tortoises are just about the cutest thing ever?

Buttercup, hatched Thanksgiving day, 2012
Buttercup is doing wonderfully well, too. She will be a year old this month, and she has grown SO MUCH since I got her in July! She weighed 60g when I got her, and as of today, she weighs 112g! I love how domey her shell is becoming. She is spunky, and she definitely knows that I'm the food-bringer. When she sees me, she RUNS over to the feeding spot in the enclosure!
Her new growth is coming in very smoothly, and by the time she is an adult, I think the slight pyramiding from her first 8 months (not with me) will be barely noticable.

Buttercup will probably be bigger than my hand by this time next year! 
Baby tortoises are cute, but I also really look forward to watching them grow into big(ish), majestic animals. Some day I'll be able to post before/after pictures, showing them as tiny hatchlings and fully grown adult beauties!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

...just soaking up a little sunshine...

Did you know that even when the temperature outside is only about 70 degrees, you can still let your tortoise(s) spend some time soaking up natural sunlight? When the air temperature is 70, the ground temperature in the sunlight is usually much warmer. Getting natural UVB light is SO important for a tortoise's health...

Getting some good, healthy natural sunlight
Our tortoise garden is mostly shaded this time of year, so I have found that putting the tortoises into a kiddie pool for a few hours on a sunny day works well. I just move the pool around the garden to keep it in the sunshine.

It looks a little make-shift... but it was still healthy for the torts
Out of curiosity I measured the temperatures:
Air temp: 72 degrees F.
Ground temp in the shade: 59 degrees F.
Ground temp in the sun: 80 degrees F.
Temperature on the tortoise's shell: 89 degrees F.

It is DEFINITELY warm enough for the Russian tortoises at such temperatures!

Have you let your tortoises spend any time outside lately?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Why a tortoise should not roam your house freely

Allegra, our redfoot tortoise, gave us quite a scare a few weeks ago. You may remember that she came to us from a sub-ideal situation. The enclosure she came with was covered in dryer lint, dust, and dog hair, and she was very dry. I let her spend every day that was warmer than 75 degrees outside in a safe enclosure, and I misted her often throughout the day.  Good food and good hydration and warmth seemed to help her, but she spent a lot more time sitting around than I would have expected.

Allegra, alive and well, thankfully
Then, one day in early September, we had 104-degrees F weather (40 degrees C). I made sure she had some shade available, and I set up the hose to constantly mist half of her enclosure. She drank, grazed, and seemed to LOVE it. And all of a sudden, stuff started to come out of her back end.

That's right. I'm going to go there. Someone has to.

Soooooo. Are you curious what started coming out of Allegra's back end yet? No? Sorry, you get to find out anyway: DOG HAIR AND DRYER LINT

Now, to give you a visual, this wasn't just a little blob. It was GOBS and GOBS. Over the course of the afternoon, more and more and more just kept coming out. Because I wanted to be able to quantify it (and since I needed to pick it up out of her enclosure anyway so she wouldn't eat it again), I put it into a dixie cup. It FILLED the dixie cup. Keep in mind that Allegra is not quite 6 inches long, which means there really isn't a whole lot of room inside her. And yet, she had a whole dixie cup of dryer lint and dog hair inside her intestines. 

Are you getting a little bit of a gaggy feeling in the back of your throat yet? Sorry. Believe me, it was a lot more gross in real life than it sounds like in words... because I'm leaving out a description the smell that came with it. Just think of how terrible it must have felt for her to have that stuff inside her for weeks (or months) on end.
Much happier now!
Now, I am sure you are wondering why I am such a weirdo in the world I would share this with you.

Well, for one, because I am REALLY relieved that Allegra passed the intestinal blockage. She could have died - and I know that many tortoises do die from ingesting non-edible things. The other reason is that I want to help you prevent the same thing from happening to your tortoise(s).

Still lumpy and bumpy... but much more active!
People often ask me why I don't just let my tortoises roam the house during the cold season when I bring them inside. "Wouldn't they be much more happy? Just think of all the space they would have, and you wouldn't need to bother with all the tortoise tables all over your house!" My answer is always a resounding NO. 
In fact, except for very very rare occasions, I don't let my tortoises roam on the floor, even for a short time. There are several reasons:
1.) I have kids who like to be on the floor. I don't really want my floor to be contaminated with tortoise poop germs. 
2.) I don't want to lose one (or several) of my tortoises. 
3.) I don't want the tortoise to ingest a toy or other item left on the ground.
4.) I don't want the tortoise to get stuck or stepped on or kicked.
5.) The floor is very drafty, even in a well-insulated house. We keep our house heated to 68-70 degrees during the winter, but the floor is realistically probably closer to 50 degrees. If the floor is chilly enough to make me want to wear warm socks, it's definitely not warm enough for a tortoise. Even if I were to provide a heating pad or a basking light, the tortoise(s) would spend more time getting chilly than I want them to.
6.) Even if when I vacuum 2x per week, we end up with little furry dust bunnies and cobwebs and hair tumbleweeds under the dressers and in the corners. I would hate for a tortoise to eat that stuff, or breathe it, and become sick. 
7.) Our dog lives outside, but sometimes in the winter he gets to spend the night indoors if it is especially cold. I would hate for him to somehow get hold of one of my tortoises and chew on it. 
8.) Our home is all on one level, but if we lived in a house with stairs, I would worry that the tortoise(s) would crash to their death. 

There are surely many more reasons why not to let a tortoise (even a large one) roam your house. A tortoise belongs in a safe, enclosed area - a tortoise table, a tortoise garden, a greenhouse. If you have the space, you MIGHT be able to alter a room in such a way that your tortoise can safely live there... but the majority of us don't just have spare rooms, do we?

Now, even if your tortoise is kept in a tortoise table (which Allegra was), please make sure that it does not get covered in dog hair, dryer lint and who knows what else... tortoises are odd little creatures that like to taste test all kinds of things. Sometimes they will decide the oddest things taste good enough to re-visit and take a second (and third and fourth) bite of...

Anyway. I hope this blog post might save a tortoise or several... 

(Aren't you glad I didn't post a picture of that dixie cup, by the way?!)