Thursday, September 19, 2013

*cough* more baby tortoises ?! *cough*

You might remember me mentioning that our tortoise family is complete. You might also know that I'm a huge sucker for tiny baby tortoises.
Just out of the box - one still has the red nail polish mark from the breeder
When I got Buttercup (the almost-yearling Marginated tortoise) I knew that at some point down the line I wanted to get more, to form a small breeding group eventually. Well, to make a long story short,  an opportunity came up that it would have been folly to pass up, and now we have two more baby Marginated tortoises.

Parmesan Cheese? Nope, baby tortoises!
These two tiny girls were shipped to me, and arrived safely this morning. The FedEx guy placed the box on the ground with the 'This way UP' arrow prominently pointing DOWN, but the tortoises were so well packaged that they were just fine.

Sorry it's a little blurry - I was too excited to get them out!
I know that I call Buttercup a 'baby' tortoise, and she is. But these wee creatures are truly BABY tortoises. They are about 1 and 3/4 inches long (less than 4.5cm). Their tiny belly buttons have just healed over, and they only have one growth ring so far. They each weigh 16g - which is about 5x smaller than Buttercup. Can you imagine that they will grow 425x larger in the course of their life (to about 6800g or up to 15lbs)?!

Buttercup looks like a giant now!
I refer to the babies as 'girls' because they were incubated at temperatures that should result in females. Tortoises, like many other reptiles, are sexed based on the temperature the eggs are kept at, did you know that? It will likely be another 5 or more years before we know for sure though.

Meet Blossom (L) and Bubbles (R). 
I got to choose these two out of several clutches. They are unrelated, and I picked the darkest of all the babies, and the lightest of all the babies. It will be interesting to see what they look like as adults. Marginated tortoises don't differ much visually, once they are grown up, but I am sure we will be able to tell them apart.

Exploring a little
After the wee Marginated babies had soaked, I set them into the enclosure to bask. They moved around and explored, one of them even nibbled on the weeds I offered, and then they dug themselves into the spaghnum moss of their hot humid hide.

I provide artificial UVB for them indoors, but once it was warm enough outside, I also brought them out and let them explore the safe little planted baby tortoise garden for a few hours. Natural sunlight is so good for them, and I hope they will be off to a good start for years of nice smooth growth. I know their breeder gave them the best start a baby could possibly hope for.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Why not to keep 2 tortoises together - a lesson learned the hard way

Today I would like to write about an important lesson that I learned the hard way: it is not a good idea to keep 2 tortoises together (yes, there are exceptions)
When tortoise owners ask me if I think they should get a second tortoise, I tell them: only if they plan to get a second enclosure. Then I advise them to spend the money on spoiling their 1 tortoise first: build a big outdoor enclosure, enlarge the indoor enclosure, upgrade the lighting. Put some money into savings for emergency vet care (you'll need it at some point during your tortoise's 80 or so years of life!).

...."But she's so.... lonely!"
Believe me, I've been there. Humans seek companionship, as do many other mammals. We like to project our own feelings onto our pets, and so, we assume that our tortoise would be happier with a 'friend.' Please know that I am not judging you for wanting to get another tortoise. Getting a little 'friend' for a tortoise can be so tempting. The truth is: (except for a few species like redfoot torts, aldabras, or pancake torts), most tortoises are loners in the wild. They roam several acres, and only occasionally encounter other tortoises. If a tortoise encounters another, they will fight, mate, or both. Then they wander apart again (or one is chased away by the other).

When thinking about getting another tortoise,
a person often thinks they will be best buddies...
If you are thinking of getting your pet tortoise a 'buddy' then I hope you read my story first, and put some serious thought into your decision after reading about my experience. Keeping 2 tortoises together (especially of the testudo species) is NOT a cake walk.

In reality, it will look like this... *BITE!* ... a lot of the time.
If you get a male and a female, after much biting and bullying, there will be plenty of mating too. More than there would ever be in nature. Enough mating to kill the female.

No comment. 
If the female can't get away from the male, he will seek her out again and again (more than in nature, since there she CAN get away). My friend rescued a tortoise female earlier this year whose vent was terribly infected and torn and chafed and ripped from all the mating. It took her a long time to heal.

The infected, oozing, puss-filled tail of my friend's rescued female that was mated too much.
(I'm posting a small picture just so it's not too gross)
Here is how I learned my lesson:
I started out with one female Russian tortoise, Timmy. After I had her for a few years, I decided I'd like to get a second tortoise. A few knowledgeable people on the tortoise forums advised against this. They warned me that tortoises, especially the testudo species (to which Russian tortoises belong) are very territorial. They told me that the tortoises would compete for food, for the basking spot, for space. They told me that they would bite and ram, and one would become stressed, hurt, and might die.

"Timmy needs a friend. My tortoises will be different and won't fight."
For some reason, I was convinced that 'my' tortoises would be different. I set up a my enclosure with lots of site barriers. I soon adopted a little male, Roz. For the first 18 or so months, everything went well. There were NO signs of aggression, both tortoises ate together, basked together, slept together. Yay! My tortoises were the exception!

Wait. What?! My male is biting my female?! Oh no!
Then one day, Roz matured. Roz discovered that he was a rapist little man-tortoise with needs and urges. Roz discovered that he didn't like sharing his food. Roz discovered that he could boss Timmy around, in spite of being half her size. Roz became a big, mean, bossy, biting bully. Timmy lost scales on her legs, and even got a bite wound on her face once. Roz got to spend a lot of time in the time-out bin until I separated him permanently.

Watch this video of Roz bobbing his head at Timmy (which is territorial behavior), and then circling her and biting her:

In the wild, this is 'normal' courting behavior. However, in the wild, the female can get away! In captivity, while both tortoises were kept in the same enclosure, Roz wanted to mate with Timmy 15+ times each day. He spent his spare time bullying her away from the food or the basking spot. Timmy started to become withdrawn, and wanted to hide and sleep all the time. I separated the two, and she started eating again, thank goodness.

Now, the 'easy' solution would have been to re-home Roz. This, however, was not an option for me. I had made a commitment to care for him, and did not want to break this commitment. The 'harder' solution was to a) separate my male, b) build a larger enclosure, and c) get a little harem of female tortoises for him. It took me nearly a year to find females, since in the pet trade, most tortoises are male. I finally got Mila and Jill, and then Lady.

Roz and his harem, basking.
I know that some people will advise that two female tortoises will get along fine. I disagree: one will always be the underdog. At least for testudo species, if you want to keep multiple females together, you should get 3 or more. This way they are less likely to fight, and the bullying will be divided a little among them.
During the Summer, the tortoises happily (and peacefully) lived outside in the large tortoise garden I built them. They will be divided over several indoor tortoise tables for the winter.

They spread out over the entire tortoise garden, except to eat.
IF you decide you want more than 1 tortoise, please avoid keeping 2 males together, or 1 male and 1 female. Either 3 females (with LOTS of space) or 1 male and 3+ females might work... but even then, you may find yourself needing a degree in tortoise diplomatics!

IF you decide to keep multiple tortoises, please remember that the enclosure size must adjust accordingly for multiple tortoises! If the absolute minimum size for 1 tortoise is 2'x4', then each additional tortoise will need at least that much more space. As always, larger is better when it comes to tortoise enclosures!

Monday, September 9, 2013

I built a little tortoise house!

Today I built our Russian tortoises a little tortoise house. Its purpose is to provide a spot that is generally drier and warmer in the mornings and more chilly days. 

Jill is modelling the little house for me

 It has real siding, and a slanted plexi glass roof, so the rain will run off. The total cost was $0, since these are all re-claimed materials. It doesn't look 'fancy' but it will work great, I think.

The plexi glass allows the sun to shine inside to warm the interior.

The inside of the shelter is fairly roomy - 18" x 13" - so all 5 torts can, in theory, fit in here. Because Russian tortoises are territorial little space hogs, only 2 or 3 will end up spending the night in here.

An added bonus of the plexi glass: I can peek inside at the torts!

In addition to this very slapped together rustic tortoise house, I'm also working on building a cold frame (like a small green house) that has polycarbonate siding. I got lucky at a nursery close-out sale and got a whole stack of odd-sized pieces for $5. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

'Shot' lettuce = yummy treat for tortoises!

The tortoises got to eat a special treat today: my friend gave me a big bag of lettuce that had gone to seed in her garden, and therefore was too bitter for humans to eat. 

Freshly bathed, and chowing down!
 The tortoises seemed to think this stuff was candy. The scarfed it down like there was no tomorrow!

Look how 'domey' little Jill is getting. She is shiny from her bath.
Even little Jill, who is the smallest of the Russian torts, ate a sizeable portion, and then looked up at me, seemingly asking for more. I think she is actually going to end up growing to be a very large Russian tortoise. Just look at how tall her shell has gotten - now she just needs to catch up in length, too! I am keeping her separate from the other Russian tortoises for the cold season, because she got picked on too much last year, and I don't want to let that happen again.

Buttercup enjoyed a few leaves, too, along with a small aloe leaf.
Buttercup, our marginated tortoise, is growing beautifully, as well. She weighed in at 72g the other day, and her new growth continues to be healthy and smooth.