With spring finally here, my thoughts are turning to growing food plants and collecting insects with which to feed my collection. Happily, these two activities are intertwined – plants attract insects, and insects pollinate plants. Garden-grown plants provide minerals and trace elements that are often difficult to supply otherwise, and their fiber content is usually quite high.
Your pets’ enthusiastic attacks on novel foods will leave no doubt as to their value in stimulating appetite and behavior. Tortoises and iguanas will spend hours happily picking through piles of fresh greens…more so if they can forage in outdoor pens atop growing plants.
Tortoises of all types, especially those maintained on a limited number of food items during the winter, invariably improve in condition when offered wild plants. During the warmer months, natural forage can account for up to 85% of the diets of most species. A pair of spur thighed tortoises, each of which weighed in at 80-90 pounds, fared very well on such a regime during the years that they were under my care at the Prospect Park Zoo.
Green, rhinoceros and desert iguanas, Uromastyx spp., chuckwallas and other herbivorous lizards become very excited as soon as novel fresh foods are offered. It is difficult to get across just how much they change in demeanor but, once seen, their reactions will quickly convince you of the value of your efforts.
Don’t forget your aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles – cooters, American and Asian box turtles, wood turtles, Amazon side-necks and a host of others relish greens, fruits and vegetables. Actually, painted turtles and red-eared sliders should be gradually switched to a plant-based diet as they mature. This may take some time and creativity, but is well-worth your efforts.
The Ever-Abundant Dandelion
April and early May is dandelion-blooming time in the northern half of the USA, and nearly every herbivorous reptile relishes its leaves and, especially, the bright yellow flowers. You can harvest this nutritious plant nearly anywhere…just be careful around homes as it is considered pest (a phenomenon that has baffled me since childhood!) and is often attacked with herbicides.
I have long used dandelion flowers to spur activity in zoo exhibits…by placing them in out-of-the-way locations, I was able to induce a great deal of interesting foraging behavior. This was of such obvious value to the animals that I continue to freeze dandelions for winter use in my own and public collections.
A number of plants that readily colonize bare patches of earth, and which need little care, are also highly valuable additions to reptile diets. Especially hardy are clover (Trifolium), honeysuckle (Lonicera), thistle (Sonchus), bramble (Rubus) and various wild grasses.
Other types of browse that produce tasty stems, leaves and roots include various mallows (Malva), cat’s ears (Hypochoeris), Clamatis and Sedum.
Please see my article on Toxic Plants for some cautions. It was written with birds in mind, but is a good general reference.