Sunday, November 21, 2021

Common Snapping Turtle

One of the most misunderstood creatures to swim in our waters is the prehistoric-looking snapping turtle. They are vilified as fish killers and stalked by pond owners throughout North America. Never was there a creature more undeserving of it's reputation than this one. The truth of the matter is...."A pond is healthier with the presence of snapping turtles, than one without them" 
Snapping turtles eat the weakened, injured and sick fish. This habit of feeding on the slower fish helps to cull out the weaker genes and the sick fish, thus reducing the risk of disease or illness being spread to healthy vital fish. Your fish population will therefore be healthier. These turtles are simply not fast enough or agile enough to capture active healthy fish. These turtles are often killed by fishermen because of their opportunistic nature. If you have fish on a stringer, these turtles will feed on them. They simply see the struggling fish as a weakened or injured fish. This is an opportunity that no self-respecting snapper will turn down. Rather than killing and cussing the turtle for doing what it is programmed to do, why not just put your fish in a basket.....problem solved! 
Many people don't realize that as the turtle ages a vast majority of their diet consists of vegetation. In fact up to 40% of their diet will be aquatic plants. In many cases it is much higher than this. So the villainous reputation that the snapper has of being a greedy fish killing machine is grossly exaggerated and false.

Each spring and summer the turtles leave their watery homes seeking mates and looking for places to lay eggs. It is at this time we will see turtles on the highway or other roadways. While people will usually try to avoid hitting turtles they view as cute like painted turtles or box turtles, they take the opposite position when it comes to snapping turtles. I see many snappers hit on the road and it sickens me to know that in the majority of these instances,  they are avoidable and senseless deaths perpetrated by people with little to no knowledge of the creature they just destroyed.
The turtle pictured here was hit on the highway near the 102 River. When I first spotted it I thought it was alive, so I stopped to move it off the road before someone did hit it. Upon closer inspection the turtle had indeed already been hit and was bleeding profusely. I had nothing with me to kill it and put it out of its misery so I gently placed it off the side of the road in the shade. It was so sad to see this very old, once vital turtle being reduced to roadkill in the blink of an eye. I would never advocate swerving your car to avoid hitting any animal, human life is precious and it certainly isn't worth the risk of killing ones self or your passengers to avoid hitting an animal. That being said,  I would guesstimate that 9 out of 10 times you can safely drive around a turtle or straddle your car over the top of it. Remember these are slow moving creatures. 
On top of the many snapping turtles being sacrificed to cars each year I learned of a practice that takes place in Indiana each year, called SNAPPERFEST. This sickening event promotes the torture of snapping turtles in the name of sport and fun. Turtles are captured and slammed on the ground repeatedly while people try  to pull the neck of the turtle out of its shell until they can wrap their fist around the turtles very long neck. These turtles are often left in the heat to dehydrate and die. Turtles are thrown to the dogs to play with and to be further tortured.

Don't get me wrong here, I am all for hunting in a responsible manner. Ethical hunters do not feel the need to torture or to be cruel to the game they are after. Any animal that is killed should be done so quickly and humanely with the ideology that the meat will be consumed. Killing to be killing is not hunting that is blood sport perpetrated by individuals of questionable moral standards. Anyone who can enjoy watching an animal being tortured and left to die is without compassion for living creatures and lacks understanding and knowledge of the ways of the natural world. Each creature serves a purpose, even if we don't fully know what that purpose is. 

This event is held annually in Ohio County, Indiana at a place called Campshore Campground. This is a family campground where people spend their vacations. Children are running around playing, swimming, fishing and riding their bikes and being exposed to animal cruelty. Is it no wonder we as a society question the moral integrity of our youth? How could it be beneficial to expose impressionable children to something so heinous as this? What are we teaching our youth? That we have dominion over all living creatures? That we decide who or what has the right to live or die? That being cruel in the name of fun is ok? Then we punish these same children for torturing the neighbors cat. Seriously people, wake up! If we want to raise gentler more understanding youth, they first have to see us behave in such a manner.

I normally do not like to get preachy or political and I try not to make waves, but occasionally I come across things that demand that I speak out against them. This is one of those times. I apologize if I have offended anyone with my rant, but I do not apologize for my stance against something as senseless as this event.

A much better alternative is to teach our young people the importance of all animals to the ecosystems where they live. We have a small wetland on the land we own and each spring the frogs, toads and turtles use it as a breeding location. My niece loves to come over and explore and catch the toads and frogs. She is learning to identify frogs and toads by sound as well as sight. She is learning patience and persistence and most importantly she is learning to love and respect nature. Last year her and her mother were mucking around in the shallow water looking for toads when a large snapping turtle startled them. I was at the house at the time so they called me to come "rescue" them. I was happy to help and showed them how to safely handle the turtle. I explained how harmless they are unless you seriously harass them. They were fascinated by this ancient-looking turtle. 

Common Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina serpentina) reach weights up to 35 or 40 pounds and lengths up to 14 or 15 inches. However they are capable of attaining much larger sizes.  They have a big pointy head and sharp beak-like mouth that has the potential to snap off a toe or finger. They have an amazingly long neck, therefore holding them by the sides of the shell like you would other water turtles is not advised. They can with little difficulty reach their neck around to the side of their shell and bite your hand. Their carapace (shell) can be brown, tan or almost black. Because of their aquatic nature and the fact that they swim along the bottom of ponds, rivers and lakes it is not uncommon to see them covered in mud or algae. Their plastron (underside bony plate) is usually yellowish in color. It can be difficult to tell males from females, males are almost always smaller than females. Each turtle has an opening at the rear called a cloacal, this opening is used for mating, eliminating waste and for egg laying. In males the opening will be further out from the plastron than the females will be.

Snapping turtles rarely bask in the sun like other aquatic turtles do. They prefer to stay in their watery habitats, They do however leave if the water dries up or to look for places to lay eggs. On land these turtles are extremely vulnerable and out of their element and will readily defend themselves by opening their mouths, and lunging at whomever is daring to pester them. Once many years ago my son and I were taking a drive in the country and we across a snapper on the gravel road. I stopped and my son said he would get it off the road. He reached down to grab it by the tail and it literally jumped two feet in the air and launched itself at him. My son jumped back and screamed like a little girl. After we both had a good laugh at the audacity of this turtle, we finally managed to move it off the road to safety. 

These turtles survive our cold bitter winters by burrowing into the mud at the bottom of ponds, lakes and rivers.  Although it is not unheard of to see them moving about under the ice along the shore of their frozen home. They become active again in March and remain so until November (weather permitting). Besides feeding on aquatic vegetation and weakened fish, they will also eat frogs, crawfish, insects, worms, snakes, birds and small mammals. Another erroneously belief held by many is that these turtles kill significant amounts of waterfowl young. This is simply not true, at least not in normal conditions. In artificial ponds where waterfowl and fish production are enhanced and the population of these turtles is too high then this species can become a nuisance. Those types of situations are certainly not the norm.

Our local herpetologist has been doing an ongoing study/survey of the aquatic turtle population on MWSU campus. There are nine ponds on the campus and he and his students set turtle traps out to capture turtles and record data. They are hoping to learn more about the traveling habits of these turtles as well as the overall health of the turtles and the ponds. Last year some vandals damaged one of the nets before he was able to check it and two turtles drowned. We were all sickened by it, but the turtles were ultimately used to dissect and check for parasites and to determine the gut content. This was a rare opportunity for us to get a closer look at the diet of the campus turtles. We discovered they were parasite free (with exception to a few nematodes) and that their diet was close to 85% vegetation.

WARNING: The following pictures of the dissection may be disturbing to some viewers!

(The plastron exposed on snapping turtle)

(Plastron has been cut away to reveal inner organs)

(Removing the organs to check for parasites under the microscope)

(Internal organs exposed)

(View of the intestines, which contained mostly mosses and other aquatic vegetation. We did find a few fish scales and one fish eyeball. There were a few tiny fingernail clams that were probably consumed along with the vegetation)

I have often taken the stance....... that our most misunderstood creatures are also our most fascinating. Snapping turtles are certainly interesting, but they are also an integral part of any aquatic habitat and should be valued as such. By all means if you enjoy eating turtle meat keep eating it and following the hunting laws. However, please reconsider the next time you pick up a gun or a club to kill one of these living dinosaurs just for the sake of killing and try instead to take a moment to watch and admire their uniqueness. 

Monday, November 8, 2021

Sulcatta/Leopard Tortoise Care

 One of the most frequently asked questions I get is "How do I care for my Sulcatta?" Sulcatta tortoises are without a doubt one of the most common, if not THE most common tortoise bred in captivity. They are easy to come by, and generally very moderately, or even cheaply priced. Therein lies the problem. Most people have $100 to lay down for a spontaneous purchase and assume they know how to care for their new charge. I mean, all you have to do is put it in an aquarium, put a light over it and give it some lettuce right? Pet Stores rarely if ever give accurate information, after all their employees are often high school, or college students just trying to earn a paycheck and are following the advise of their supervisors, who in turn know very little. Their job is to upsell. The majority of their recommendations are actually harmful to your tortoise. For example....did you know aquariums are bad for tortoises? So then why are they always offered as a must have for your new tortoise? Because they are trying to make as much money off of you as they possibly can before you walk out the door. 

If you have landed on this page I am in the hopes that you are researching and looking for good information to help you provide the best possible care for your new pet. I wish I could say I could take credit for the following information, but I cannot. It was compiled and written by a very knowledgeable breeder and lover of tortoises, named Tom, who wants nothing more than for the information to be shared far and wide so that no more (or at least fewer) tortoises suffer from bad husbandry. If you would like to chat with experts and learn about turtles and tortoises please click the link below. If you would like to learn more about caring for your hatchling Sulcatta (Leopard and other desert species) please keep reading.

Tortoise Forum


Babies hatch during the start of the rainy season. It is hot, very humid, rainy, and marshy in some areas. There are puddles and lush green growing food everywhere. In some areas there is a dry season, but the hot monsoon season is when babies hatch, and babies find humid microclimates to hide in during drier times. In extreme conditions they aestivate and don't eat or grow at all when its hot and dry. Keeping your hatchling in a dry, desert-like enclosure, is a big mistake and an invitation to disaster. It is also very unnatural for these animals. Damp substrate, a water bowl, and a humid hide should all be prerequisites. Along with this, warm temps day and night are necessary. Sulcattas, leopards and stars are NOT prone to shell rot at all, and they do not get respiratory infections in these damp conditions as long as temps are kept up. I shoot for no lower than 80 degrees day or night year round, and all three of these heat loving species do well with a day time ambient approaching 90 degrees. Humidity is at 80+% all the time. Most people keep them too cool and too dry. Adults can tolerate colder temps and drier conditions in some circumstances, but this care sheet is for hatchlings and babies and is aimed at helping them thrive, not just survive. I know the books, the breeders and the "experts" all say the opposite of this. They are wrong. They've been wrong for 30 years. For 20 of those years I was wrong right along with them. Some of us have learned and advanced. Some have not. Keep this in mind when consulting a vet, or a potential breeder or seller that you want to buy from. As soon as they contradict this info and tell you "this is a desert species", you will know NOT to buy from them.

Some General Notes:

  • Set up your enclosure, run it, check it and make adjustments BEFORE you bring home a new tortoise. Babies are easy if the set up is correct. Babies aren't delicate or difficult. When babies are not started correctly is when people have problems with them. Babies have a smaller margin of error due to their smaller body mass, if you've made mistakes, or if the enclosure and equipment isn't already set up and at the right temperatures.
  • You won't find most of what you need to set up a tortoise at a pet store. What you will find is expensive stuff that is bad for your tortoise and lots of bad advice. This is true even at most reptile specialty places. Where to get tortoise supplies then? The hardware store or large department stores. There are a few exceptions like reptile thermostats, some reptile heating elements, and UV tubes. I get these from on-line sellers.
  • If you are going the the grocery store to buy tortoise food, you are feeding the wrong stuff. If you have no other choice but to use grocery store food due to your climate and weather for part of the year, it will need to be amended to make it more suitable as tortoise food. More on this later.
  • It is my hope that this care sheet finds you BEFORE you buy a tortoise. Most breeders start their babies too dry. The end result is stunting, pyramiding and sometimes death weeks or months later. Don't get a baby from someone who starts them dry, on dry substrate, outdoors all day, and doesn't soak daily.
  • Some common mistakes to avoid, with more explanation later: Buying from the wrong (dry) source, getting advice and products from a pet store, free roaming indoors or out, feeding a diet of mostly grocery store foods without amendments, not soaking daily, cool temps, wrong UV bulbs, wrong basking bulbs, letting dogs around your tortoise, small enclosures, open topped enclosures, sand or soil substrates, bad vet care or advice, too much outside time for little babies, keeping a pair of tortoises in the same enclosure...

Heating And Lighting:
I use a 45-65 watt incandescent flood bulb on a 12 hour timer and adjust the height of the fixture to get a basking area of around 95-100 directly under the bulb. In some closed chambers I go with lower wattage bulbs. This depends on many factors and no one can tell you exactly what wattage you will need in your enclosure. Let your thermometer be your guide. I use a ceramic heating element or a radiant heat panel set to 80 degrees on a reptile thermostat to maintain my ambient temperature in the enclosure. The basking lamp should raise the day time ambient temperature into the high 80s or low 90s. Ambient should be no lower than 80, but drifting up to 90 during the heat of the day is good. The thermostat will keep your CHE or RHP off during these times, but ready to click on after the basking lamp clicks off and the ambient temperature starts to drop at night. I use LED bulbs when I want to brighten up the whole enclosure and I run these on the same timer as the basking bulb. There are other ways to do some of this, but trial and error have shown time and time again, that the above is what works the best. Don't use "spot" bulbs, reptile specialty bulbs, halogen bulbs, any cfl, or mercury vapor bulbs. You want a plain old, regular incandescent flood bulb from the hardware store. I buy them in six or twelve packs, so I always have extras on hand. They always go out at the most inopportune times.

Tortoises need regular exposure to the right kind of UV rays in order to make vitamin D2 into D3 to be able to utilize dietary calcium. Real sunshine is best, but be careful. Shade should always be available as babies can overheat and die surprisingly quickly. If your tortoise can get some regular sunning time in a safe outdoor enclosure, even just a couple of times a week for most of the year, you don't need any artificial UV. Its okay if you have to skip two or three weeks of sunning time during a cold winter spell. If you live somewhere with long frozen winters, then some artificial UV might be in order for that time of year. I no longer recommend mercury vapor bulbs for several reasons, but florescent HO (High Output) UV tubes work very well according to my UV meter. CFL type UV bulbs are ineffective as UV sources and sometime burn reptile eyes. No type of compact florescent bulb should be used over a tortoise. Also get yourself a Solarmeter 6.5. Without a UV meter, you are guessing about the UV levels in your enclosure, no different than guessing the temperature without a thermometer. At least without a thermometer you can still feel the temperature with your hand. You can't feel UV levels. These meters pay for themselves in short order since you won't be replacing perfectly good working bulbs every six months, as the sellers recommend.

Too much outside time is bad for babies. It slows their growth tremendously and causes pyramiding. I've done many side-by-side experiments with clutch mates over the years to determine this fact. My general rule is an hour of access to sunshine per inch of tortoise. Once they reach around 5 inches, outside all day is fine, weather permitting, but soak daily and continue to let them sleep in their humid closed chamber every night until they get a bit bigger.

The Enclosure:
I have not been able to make any open topped enclosure work to my satisfaction. Low sided open topped enclosures like tortoise tables and sweater boxes are the worst. No amount of covering, or attempts to slow heat and humidity loss have worked well for me. There is just no way to keep the warm humid air where you want it. Closed chambers are the way to go. Maintaining whatever temperature and humidity you want is easy and efficient in a closed chamber. They use a lot less electricity because all of your heat and humidity is contained with nowhere to go. It also makes maintaining warm night temps a snap. Open tops allow all your warm humid air to escape up and into the room where your enclosure sits. Even if you cover most of the top, the heat lamps create a chimney effect and draw your heat and humidity up and out. Having the heat lamps outside, or on top of, the enclosure also lets the majority of the electrically generated heat you are creating float up up and away. A closed chamber contains all the heat and humidity. It works best if all the heating and lighting equipment is INSIDE the enclosure with the tortoise. Any other way is a compromise and less than ideal. Maintaining a small open topped box at 80 degrees with 80% humidity in a regular sized room that is 70 degrees and 20% humidity is VERY difficult, if not impossible in a practical sense. A closed chamber makes it easy.
You can make it much more fancy and add plants and decorations if you want. I'm going for simplicity and I spend time making their outdoor enclosures more fantastic. When done correctly, your baby will only be in this enclosure for a year or two, and then it will be time to move outside full time with a heated night box, or get much larger indoor accommodations if this is what your climate dictates.

What if you already bought a glass tank or wooden tortoise enclosure? How can you make that one work? You really can't. Covering the top and trying to contain the heat and humidity is better than nothing, but the sooner you resign yourself to buying or building the right kind of enclosure, the sooner you and your tortoise will reap the benefits. Almost everyone gets bad info from the breeder, pet store, vets, and all over the internet. I'm sorry this happens and sorry you bought all the wrong stuff, but it helps no one when a person keeps trying to jam that square peg into a round hole. Think it over, take a deep breath, and just go get the correct stuff now that you know. I encourage people to return the items to the pet shop and tell them why. Eventually they will learn and stop selling dangerous, bad, and useless items to people.

You need to know, and periodically adjust your temperatures. You need to regularly check warm side, cool side, basking spot and night temps, and adjust as needed. Every enclosure is different and they even change with the seasons in most households. It is not enough to screw a bulb in and walk away. Check those temps, and make adjustments, preferably BEFORE the baby even comes home. I like to use an infrared temp gun AND digital thermometers for this purpose. Check your temps early and often.

Enclosure Size:
Simply put: The bigger the better. I start babies in a 30x48 inch closed chamber. As a minimum, I would suggest no smaller than 36"x18" for a tiny hatchling, but you'll need to upgrade quickly. They need room to roam around. Once you put in the food and water bowls, the humid hide, and any decorations or potted plants, there is hardly any room left over to walk. Tortoises do not tend to do as well as some other types of reptiles when stuffed into small enclosures. They need room to roam inside their safe heated enclosures, and the floor is not a safe option. Don't think that you'll use a smaller enclosure, and just let Sheldon out to roam the floor for some exercise. This almost always ends in disaster. Its bad for your tortoise and impaction, sickness, injury, or death is the usual result. "But, but, but... I make it safe and supervise closely..." says every person until the day that disaster eventually strikes and they realize they were wrong. Its a terrible sickening feeling to hold a dead tortoise in your hand. Don't put yourself through this. Make a large enclosure. Don't have room for a large enclosure? Get a different pet that can live in a smaller enclosure that you have room for. Tortoises aren't good pets for everyone. For a sulcatta, even 4x8' is only going to last a year or two. You might get three years with it for a star, leopard or slower growing sulcatta, but that is optimistic. Outdoor enclosures can be even larger. Babies will NOT get lost or overwhelmed in 10x10 foot enclosure. In the wild they roam far greater distances than that.

Humid Hide Boxes:
This offers the tortoise a more humid place to retreat to and sleep and can simulate some of the more damp micro-climates they might utilize in the wild. It is as simple as getting a $2 black dishwashing tub from Walmart, flipping it upside down and cutting out a small door hole. I keep the substrate under the tub more damp than the surrounding substrate and it works great. You can also use plastic shoe boxes. Sphagnum moss is unnecessary and potentially dangerous since they eat it, and it can cause an impaction. The humid hide is a very important detail that should not be overlooked. Half logs and flower pots on their sides do not work. They are not closed in enough.

There are only three viable options. Coco coir, orchid bark, and cypress mulch. All of these can be purchased in bulk at most hardware or garden center stores at a tremendous savings. I don't like coco coir for these species because its too messy. I don't like cypress mulch because the pieces aren't uniform, some pieces are too big or too sharp, and because it smells like the swamp that is came from. If these two are all you can find, then go ahead and use them. They are safe and suitable. Fine grade orchid bark works the best. Its cheap, easy, holds moisture well, doesn't stink, easy to clean, easy for babies to walk on, not an ingestion hazard, etc... I recommend against any store bought soil, "Pets At Home" reptile bedding with the little white limestone bits in it, wood shavings or chips, ground walnut shell, corn cob bedding, rabbit pellets, compressed grass pellet bedding, newspaper pellets, hay, cedar, or any amount of sand. None of those are safe or suitable for an indoor tortoise enclosure.

Water Dishes:
Plain old terracotta plant saucers work best. They come in a variety of sizes to suit any size tortoise, they offer good traction to little wet tortoise feet, they have low sides, they are cheap so you can buy extras, and they are shallow so your tortoise won't drown if it happens to flip over and land upside down in the water bowl. Sink the bowl into the substrate for best results. I prefer to give babies two water bowls. Do NOT use the typical ramped pet store bowls. These are great for snakes and lizards, but they can literally be death traps for tortoises. Clean your terracotta saucer as often as needed. The more they track food and substrate into it, and the more they poop in it, the better. This means they are comfortable using their bowl, and that is great news. Just rinse and refill as many times a day as you need to. A water bowl that stays clean and untouched all day is a water bowl that is not being used for one reason or another. This is a bad sign, and it means your tortoise is one step closer to dehydration.

I recommend ALL hatchlings of ALL species be soaked in 85-95 degree water for at least 20-30 minutes every day. I use a tall sided opaque tub and keep the water depth about a third to half way up the body. If you have a humid enclosure with a humid hide and a water bowl, it is totally fine to skip a day here and there. Soaking only once a week and using a dry enclosure is not enough in my opinion, and I would not buy a hatchling that had been started that way. Once the tortoise gets to about 100 grams, I start skipping a day now and then. I gradually taper it down as they gain size. How often I soak older tortoises depends on a lot of factors, the current weather and season being two big ones. I soak more often when its hot and dry. If you live in a warm, humid, rainy climate, and your tortoise is exposed to these conditions, soaking less often is probably fine, but it still wont hurt anything to do it. You cannot soak too much or for too long. Soaking does not do any harm whatsoever. It doesn't make them poop too much and not digest their food, it doesn't upset their "water balance", whatever that is, it doesn't give them shell rot or respiratory infections, and it is NOT unnatural in any way. "But, but, but... Who soaks them every day in nature???" These babies hatch at the start of the RAINY season in the wild. Its raining on them frequently, and puddles form all over the place. Keep the soak water warm for the entire soak. If you are in a hurry, 10 minutes is enough. If you are forgetful or get distracted, an hour will do no harm.

So much contradictory info on this subject. Its simple. What do they eat in the wild. Grass, weeds, leaves, flowers, and succulents. Feed them a huge variety of these things, and you'll have a healthy tortoise. All of these species are very adaptable when it comes to diet and there is a very large margin of error, and many ways to do it right. What if you don't have this sort of "natural" tortoise food available for part of each year because you are in the snow? You will have no choice but to buy grocery store food. What's wrong with grocery store food? It tends to lack fiber, some items are low in calcium or have a poor calcium to phosphorous ratio, and some items have deleterious compounds in them. All of these short comings can be improved with some simple supplementation and amendments. A pinch of calcium two times per week will help fix that problem. You can also leave cuttlebone in the enclosure, so your tortoise can self-regulate its own calcium intake. What about fiber? Soaked horse hay pellets, soaked ZooMed Grassland pellets, Mazuri tortoise chow, "Salad style", "Herbal Hay" both from @TylerStewart and his lovely wife Sarah at, or many of the dried plants and leaves available from Will @Kapidolo Farms. If you must use grocery store foods, favor endive and escarole as your main staples. Add in arugula, cilantro, kale, collard, mustard and turnip greens, squash leaves, spring mix, romaine, green or red leaf lettuce, butter lettuce, water cress, carrot tops, celery tops, bok choy, and whatever other greens you can find. If you mix in some of the aforementioned amendments, these grocery store foods will offer plants of variety and fiber and be able to meet your tortoises nutritional needs just fine. I find it preferable to grab a few grapevine or mulberry leaves, or a handful of mallow and clover, or some broad leaf plantain leaves and some grass, but with the right additions, grocery store stuff is fine too. Grow your own stuff, or find it around you when possible. Tyler and Sarah also sell a fantastic Testudo seed mix that is great for ALL tortoise species and also super easy to grow in pots, trays, raised garden beds, or in outdoor tortoise enclosures. When that isn't possible, add a wide variety of good stuff to your grocery store greens to make them better.

I recommend you keep cuttlebone available all the time. Some never use it and some munch on it regularly. Some of mine will go months without touching it, and then suddenly eat the whole thing in a day or two. Sulcattas and leopards grow a lot. This requires a tremendous amount of calcium assimilation over time. A great diet is paramount, but it is still a good idea to give them some extra calcium regularly. I use a tiny pinch of RepCal or ZooMed plain old calcium carbonate twice a week. Much discussion has been given to whether or not they need D3 in their calcium supplement. Personally, I don't think it matters. Every tortoise should be getting adequate UV exposure one way or another, so they should be able to make their own D3. I also like to use a mineral supplement. "MinerAll" is my current brand of choice. It seems to help those tortoises that like to swallow pebbles and rocks. It is speculated that some tortoise eat rocks or substrate due to a mineral deficiency or imbalance. Whatever the reason, "MinerAll" seems to stop it or prevent it. Finally, I like to use a reptile vitamin supplement once a week, to round out any hidden deficiencies that may be in my diet over the course of a year.

Outdoor Enclosures:
This is a MUST in my opinion. Tortoises are solar powered, need lots of walking room, and benefit greatly from some time in the great outdoors. With hatchlings I start with short excursions of only an hour a day, followed by a soak on the way in. As they gain size, I like to leave them out longer and longer each day, weather permitting, until they eventually live outside full time with a heated night box of some sort, where climate allows. Outside time must be done with great care as there are many dangers. They can overheat, be eaten or mauled, or escape. Here is one simple idea. A large middle pool or horse watering trough could also work. If you don't have a suitable grassy area, you can put a plywood bottom on this with wheels and legs, and move it around. Do NOT let your baby roam free outside. You will lose it eventually, and you'll be unable to explain how it happened so fast when you were watching so carefully. Its a sickening feeling. Don't put yourself through this. Use an enclosure and make it large. Also, if you have a dog, or people who come to visit bring a dog, your tortoise is in grave danger. Be careful. EVERY dog will chew up a tortoise. It doesn't matter how nice and loving a dog it is. Tortoises are seen as chew toys by dogs. Don't let this happen to your tortoise. Physically prevent it with fencing and/or correct housing. Don't leave it to chance. It is a horrible sickening feeling holding a mauled tortoise in your hands. Don't put yourself through this.


This is the subject of many threads in itself. I will simply state here what I know to be true based on my experience, my experiments, conversations with people who live other countries and study tortoises, people who have kept them for decades here in the U.S., and personal observations of thousands of tortoises in all manners of keeping styles.

There are many things listed as causes of pyramiding. I can refute each one with multiple examples. Lack of UV, lack of calcium, too much protein, too much food, the wrong foods, fast growth, wrong temperatures, small enclosures, not enough exercise, indoor housing, etc. None of these factors CAUSES pyramiding. They can all be somehow related to it, but they don't cause it. Simply put: Pyramiding is caused by growth in conditions that are too dry. This is true for any species of tortoise, even the ones that don't typically pyramid. To prevent pyramiding I use a closed chamber and keep the ambient temperature 80 or higher all the time, I keep humidity at 80% or higher, I offer a humid hide that holds 95-100% humidity, I soak daily to ensure good hydration, and I spray the carapace with plain water several times a day. Sulcattas hatch during the African rainy season. It is hot, humid, rainy and marshy. It makes no sense to keep them in a dry box, with dry substrate, and a hot desiccating bulb overhead. Simulating this rainy season has grown me hundreds of smooth leopard and sulcatta babies, as well as a few other species too. There are literally thousands of examples of other people succeeding using the same basic philosophy here on this forum. So please, don't keep sulcattas and leopards in desert-style enclosures. It is not healthy for them. They are not the least bit prone to shell rot, like some other species are, and they DO NOT get respiratory infections from high humidity as long as temps are 80 or higher everywhere in the enclosure, day and night. I don't say these things and come up with these assertions lightly. Its not that I raised one tortoise this way, and everything went okay. I have literally raised hundreds of tortoises of multiple species this way and had nothing but success. My methods and success rate have been repeated by thousands of tortoise keepers all over the globe. We have more than 10 years of living healthy examples to back up these assertions.

If you want to prevent pyramiding, simply do the above stuff.



Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Blanding's Turtle

March 23rd is designated as World Turtle Day. A day to not only celebrate the many and varied turtles and tortoises found throughout the world, but also a day of education and awareness. Many species are critically endangered and many more are threatened, and unless human behaviors change, many will be lost to us forever.

One of the most critically imperiled turtles to be found in North America is the Blanding’s Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii), named for William Blanding, a Philadelphia naturalist who first described it. They are found from Ontario, Canada, south to Iowa and back east as far as New York. The highest population densities are found in the Great Lakes region. They are listed as state endangered or a species of special concern in nearly every state they occur. The biggest threat these turtles face is the loss of habitat due to agriculture and from major modifications to streams and rivers, such as dam building. Blanding’s turtles have specific habitat requirements that include marshes, sloughs, ponds, lakes, streams, creeks, and vernal pools with shallow water, soft bottoms and large amounts of aquatic vegetation. 

With the draining of these wetlands for agriculture and urban expansion the turtle finds it harder and harder to survive.

Added problems this species faces are cars, predators such as raccoons, foxes, skunks, and even ants. Then we must consider that this species reaches sexual maturity later than most turtles with females reaching sexual maturity between the ages of 14 to 20 years of age and males at about 12 years of age. With all these things combined we can begin to understand how this turtle has suffered such dramatic population declines.

Blanding’s turtles are semi-aquatic basking turtles that may be found in their watery habitats or on land. They leave water when seeking new areas to inhabit or when looking for places to lay their eggs. In the water they are poor to average swimmers and will use the dense aquatic vegetation to support themselves as they move through the water. They are often found floating among the aquatic plants or basking on logs, muskrat mounds and other objects within the water.

Blanding’s turtles are medium-sized turtles with a shell length up to 7 inches, although lengths up to 10 inches have been reported. Males are larger than females, but females have a higher domed shell than males. These turtles are often mistaken for box turtles because of their high domed shells, and the hinge located on the bottom shell. The top portion of their shell is dark in color and may vary from gray to black with small light color spots or small lines in a highly variable pattern, although some specimens lack any markings at all. The bottom portion of the shell is yellow with dark blotches on each scute. 

The most distinctive characteristic of this species is the yellow chin and neck. This feature makes identifying them easy as no other turtle in North America has this bright yellow neck and chin. They often look as if they are smiling, which in my opinion gives them an adorable, charming appearance. 

This species also has an extremely long neck and are often referred to as long-neck turtles and are lumped in with another long-neck turtle called the Chicken Turtle which is also critically endangered in much of their range.

Mating takes place between April and June when males approach females. Sometime between June and July the female will search for a suitable location on land to lay her eggs. She will dig a shallow hole and deposit 6 to 20 eggs. She may lay up to 2 or 3 clutches in a single season. The eggs incubate for up to 80 days.

In Missouri where I live there are only a few populations in three counties reported in the entire state. One of those locations is Loess Bluffs (formerly Squaw Creek) National Wildlife Refuge in Holt County. A female was found, in 2012, crossing the roadway near one of the wetlands. It was captured, and had a transmitter secured to its shell. This is the first Blanding’s to be tagged in over 20 years on the refuge. This species is rarely encountered on the refuge, so this particular turtle caused much excitement among the refuge biologist, Darrin Welchert, and our local herpetologist Dr. Mills and the rest of us who were privy to the situation. 

The next day after it was tagged it was found within 25 yards of where it was released. Two days after being released it was 300 yards away!!!
This illustrates this species ability to travel great distances. Skipping even one day of searching for this tagged turtle could result in losing it and the transmitter for good.                 
Over the course of several weeks numerous trips were made to the refuge to locate the turtle. It was found within a 300 yard radius of its original release location each time. Several weeks ago, Dr. Mills picked up the signal of the turtle and discovered that the transmitter had somehow fallen off the shell. To say everyone was disappointed would be an understatement as much knowledge stood to be gained about this species and their habits on the refuge by following the day to day activities of this single turtle. Hopefully next spring will yield an additional turtle and barring any problems we will be able to start the study anew.

The biggest threat to these turtle eggs is predators such as raccoons, and foxes. As many as 85% of the eggs laid by the Blanding’s turtles may fall victim to predation. Ants can also destroy a batch of newly laid eggs, as well as small burrowing rodents like chipmunks. Once the eggs hatch; they are still not out of danger from predation from animals such as foxes, raccoons, skunks, opossums, and large birds like herons and crows. All of these animals and more savor baby turtles. Road fatalities also take a toll on turtle populations. Even a loss of 1 to 2 percent of adult turtles can have long lasting impacts on future generations.  

It is common for this species to live more than 50 years and there are reports of specimens exceeding 70 plus years. Their reproductive cycle does not slow down with age; quite the opposite is true. The older, more mature females produce larger clutch sizes and are likely to mate more frequently. The ability of this turtle to live to a ripe old age and to continue to reproduce throughout its life may be the only saving grace for this species. 


The diet of the Blanding’s is varied and includes crawdads, fish, frogs, tadpoles, leeches, insects and some aquatic vegetation. In most of the range crawdads seems to make up the bulk of their diet.

Blanding’s, like all turtles that occur in colder climates they hibernate during the winter. They will submerge themselves in the water and lay dormant on the bottom in the mud and silt. Their heart rate slows and their bodies become inactive as they wait out the cold weather. In Missouri they may become active again with the first thaw as early as March. During the hottest days of summer they typically stop feeding and once again go dormant in a form of summer-time hibernation known as aestivation. This heat induced inactivity may last a month or more; but will usually end when cooler temperatures return in the early fall. They will start eating again to put on fat reserves that will see them through their long winter hibernation.

Much consideration should be given before land development takes place in areas where known populations of these turtles are located. Some areas have had success with artificial habitats in helping secure areas for this turtle to reproduce and live. As nearly all states provide some sort of protection for this species, anyone planning to alter these habitats should be made responsible for creating alternate areas for these turtles to live. 

We all need to appreciate the beauty of these natural areas and recognize that wildlife depend on these wild lands for survival. It would be sad indeed to lose something so unique and beautiful because of greed or lack of knowledge.