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.