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Turtles Have Shells But They Still Need a Place to Hide! – Part 1

One of the most over-looked aspects of proper turtle care is the provision of a secure place to hide.  It makes sense that a hiding place would seem unnecessary – after all, turtles can simply withdraw into their shells when threatened.  However, it’s not that simple (as usual!).

Shelter Use in Nature and Captivity

Even though their shells are often hard, and offer excellent camouflage – imagine a box turtle on a forest floor or a leopard tortoise among brush – most turtles become quite stressed if denied a secure place to hide.  Even bold, long-term captives prefer a shelter, at least for sleeping.

Particularly retiring species, such as mata mata, bog and Malayan snail-eating turtles, will Snapping Turtleoften fail to thrive if kept in bare surroundings. Hatchlings, even of common snapping turtles and other aggressive species, are consumed by predators ranging from giant water bugs to herons…most are always “on guard” and will refuse to eat unless given ample cover.

Note: at 80+ pounds, the Common Snapper Pictured here is among the heaviest ever recorded. He is on exhibit at The Cold Spring Harbor Fish Hatchery, which houses an extensive collection of native reptiles and amphibians.

Useful Shelters for Terrestrial and Aquatic Turtles

Eastern Painted TurtleThe Zoo Med Turtle Hut, available in 5 sizes, suits nearly all land-dwelling turtles.  R Zilla Rock Dens sink, and so can be used on land or underwater (check that aquatic turtles cannot lodge themselves inside too tightly, and provide larger shelters as they grow).

The Zoo Med Turtle Dock can be set up to serve both as a basking platform and hideaway for aquatic turtles.  When used in shallow water, the sloping side, top of the platform and tank’s wall form a nice underwater cave readily used by young painted, spotted, mud and other turtles.

Next time we’ll take a look at a few species that have special needs, and I’ll add a note about an old turtle of mine that hides within a unique, very old “cave”.  Please write in with your questions and comments. 

Further Reading

For an interesting report on Eastern box turtle natural history, including the use of shelters in the wild, please look here.






Common Problems When Raising Toads – Bloating and Paralysis

The tadpoles of American Toads (Bufo/Anaxyrus americanus) and Fowler’s Toads (B. woodhousei fowleri), and of related US natives, are frequently collected by herpers young and old and taken home to raise.  They usually prove quite hardy, and, even on nutrient-poor diets (i.e. lettuce), transform into tiny toadlets within a few weeks.

Toad Maladies

Young toads often prove difficult to raise however, and each year I receive questions concerning the same 2 problems – bloating American Toadand paralysis (difficulty hopping, problems catching food, etc.).  I’ve run across this myself when raising American toad tadpoles for a release program in NYC, where most of the tadpoles transformed, but died soon after.

Nutritional Deficiencies

I’ve come to believe that 2 distinct problems are at work.  Difficulty in using the rear legs is probably linked to deficiency in calcium or another nutrient, but efforts to reverse it, at least in small toads, have proven unsuccessful.
Using supplements on the food given newly Haswell's Frog Tadpoletransformed toads helps, but we really do not know what most species, especially North American natives, actually require.
Tadpole nutrition is another area that needs investigation.  Poorly nourished tadpoles may transform, but then die several weeks later…I’ve had this happen on a number of occasions over the years, with several species, even the relatively indestructible African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis).

Bacterial Infection

Bloating is usually a byproduct of a bacterial infection, and may be connected to nutrition.  Toads already weakened by a nutritional deficiency may be more likely to become infected with bacteria that healthier clutch mates fight off – hence both symptoms in 1 toad.  This is based mainly on anecdotal evidence, but does seem to happen time and time again, and with several species.

Natural Mortality

Another point to bear in mind is that, among species that lay huge clutches, a great many tadpoles will not survive even under the best of circumstances.  Some turtles lay infertile eggs, apparently to satiate predators and take attention away from viable ones – I have no hard evidence, but I would not be surprised to learn that weaker tadpoles serve a similar function.

Feeding Tadpoles and Young Toads

Most native toad tadpoles are omnivorous.  Try to provide them with as much variety as possible, and bear in mind that, in large groups, smaller, weaker individuals are easily out-competed at feeding time.  I’ve had good luck raising tadpoles on a diet comprised of tropical fish food flakes, algae tablets and kale pre-soaked in hot water (this breaks down thick cell walls). Metamorphs (newly transformed toads) consume scores of species of leaf litter invertebrates in the wild, complicating our job in raising them.  In addition to tiny frog standards such as fruit flies, springtails and pinhead crickets, you might try collecting tiny invertebrates as toad food (please see article below).

Further Reading

Please see my article Leaf Litter Invertebrates for information on collecting live food for tiny amphibian pets.

 Haswell’s Frog tadpole image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by LiquidGhoul

Beyond Tarantulas – The Amazing Diversity of Insects in the Pet Trade

Tarantulas and scorpions have long been invertebrate pet staples, with over 150 species being captive bred in large numbers.  However, insect keeping, always popular in Japan but much less so elsewhere, is now coming into its own in the USA.  I recently found that over 50 stick and leaf insect, 30 mantid, 25 cockroach and 25 beetle species, along with numerous grasshoppers, katydids, butterflies and moths, are now regularly bred in captivity.

Velvet Ants, Tarantula Wasps, Giant Water Bugs and innumerable others are also kept in smaller numbers, and are growing in popularity.  An aquatic insect exhibit I recently designed for the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, featuring the usually ignored Water Scorpions and Whirligig, diving and water scavenger beetles, is a big hit with visitors.

Grand Possibilities

The potential diversity of insects that may be kept in captivity is limitless, and many exhibit their entire life cycles and full range ofHercules Beetle behaviors in a relatively limited space and time span.  Those who keep insects are offered the real possibility of discovering new information.

Conservation Value

Much of what has been learned by those keeping insects in private and public collections has conservation value.  Captive breeding and reintroduction programs for endangered species ranging from Sphinx Moths in Arizona to Burying Beetles in Rhode Island have yielded promising results.

Other Invertebrates

An astonishing array of other terrestrial invertebrates are also being kept and bred in captivity, including Banana Slugs, trapdoor, orb-weaver, wolf and crab spiders, centipedes, millipedes, Vinegaroons and Sun Scorpions, to name just a few.  

Further Reading

Japan’s Tama Zoo boasts 2 giant insect houses…be forewarned, insect aficionados who visit will emerge in shock, as did I!

Phasmids (walking sticks and walking leaves) have long been popular as captives in Europe. Photos of many of the nearly 3,000 described species, along with natural history notes, are posted here.

Founded in 1892, and with roots dating to 1872, the NY Entomological Society is an invaluable resource for insect enthusiasts. To learn more about this well-respected group and its publications, please visit their website.



Urban Adventures – Fishing for Alligators in the Sewers of New York City

I’ve been fortunate in having had many adventures with reptiles.  Some took place in the exotic locales I dreamed of visiting as a child, but one of my first was situated in far less promising surroundings – the sewers below the Bronx, in NYC!

The Legend

I grew up hearing tales of huge alligators that supposedly cruised the sewers of NYC, warmed by the steamy air and gorging on rats, roaches and garbage.  In the Frank and Marsh Crocodile1950’s and 60’s, huge numbers of baby Spectacled Caimans (Caiman crocodylus), dubbed “alligators”, were sold to tourists visiting Florida.  In fact, I was presented with just such a creature by my grandfather.  As the story went, the “gators” wound up in sewers after being flushed or dropped there when they became ill or too large for their owners to manage.

My Golden Opportunity

When I was 10 or 11 years old, construction on the street outside my home gave me a long-awaited opportunity…the chance to sneak down into the sewers on an alligator hunt.  I couldn’t imagine a more fortunate set of circumstances, and felt sorry for the many children deprived of such a grand adventure!

Provisioned with a hook, line and pilfered cold cuts, I spent many summer afternoons stalking the mythical beasts below the streets of the Bronx.  I did see “wildlife” – rats, mice and roaches – but I did not catch any alligators (or infectious diseases, thankfully!).

Fortunately, my interests were wide, and with the aid of my books and the (very!) patient, kind-hearted folks at the American Museum of Natural History’s Invertebrate Department, I was able to determine that at least 3 different species of cockroach roamed the area.

The Reality of NYC’s Sewer Gators

Of course, NYC’s sewer system is a less than ideal home for crocodilians of any type – cold winter temperatures, a lack of sunlight and a poor diet would doom the White Gatorcreatures to brief lives, if ever they were there.

I recently expressed that opinion in an interview that was scheduled to air on the TV show “Monster Quest”.  However, I upon watching the episode I found that I had been “deleted” – hopefully because my comments were not “dramatic” enough, and not due to my poor on-air appearance!

Some Real NYC Crocodilians

About 10 years ago, a young Spectacled Caiman did wind up being caught in a filter at a water treatment plant on the Bronx River…perhaps the first solid evidence of a free-living crocodilian in NYC.  The animal had likely been dumped by its owner a short time earlier, but we could not trace its history.

A young alligator, released into a lake in Central Park a few years back, put Manhattan on the map as crocodilian “habitat”.

Working with Crocs

Frank Moving GharialHappily, as time went on I was able to work with 15 or so species of crocodilians in zoos and the wild.  Please see the attached photos – the beast charging me is a marsh crocodile,  Crocodylus palustris, the long-snouted fellow being led into the net is an Indian gharial, Gavialis gangeticus, and the white specimen is an albino American alligator, Alligator mississippiensis.


Breeding the Great Crested Newt, Triturus cristatus – Part 1

Few amphibians exhibit a more dramatic change in appearance than male Crested Newts in breeding condition.  It really is something to see and, fortunately, breeding this species is actually quite feasible.  Breeding the crested newt in captivity also has great conservation value, as this species is in decline throughout Europe.  Furthermore, any information garnered is applicable to other species of concern, including the Alpine Newt, Triturus alpestris and the Swiss Newt, T. helveticus.

Natural History

The Crested Newt, which may reach 6.4 inches in length, is grayish to black above and orange with round black spots below.   Male Crested Newt

Living a largely terrestrial existence for most of the year, both sexes enter breeding ponds in late winter or early spring.  At this point, the males’ colors intensify and a large, comb-like dorsal crest develops. In both sexes the tail also becomes more paddle-like to facilitate swimming. Males also usually develop a white line along the sides of the tail, while reproductively active females sport a white line down the back.

Bringing Newts into Breeding Condition

While breeding may occur spontaneously in captivity, the most consistent results will be obtained if the newts are over-wintered at 36-42 F.  An increase in water depth may stimulate breeding outside of the normal cycle, but fewer viable eggs will be produced).

Upon emergence from hibernation, the newts should be housed in aquarium, or their terrestrial terrarium should be modified to provide a large water area. Resting sites such as cork bark slabs or basking platforms should be provided.

Due to their unique egg-laying behavior (females fold a plant leaf around each egg), crested newts slated for breeding are best housed in well-lit aquariums stocked with live plants.  The water should, if possible, be maintained at 54-65 F (a cool basement or garage often proves ideal).

We’ll take a look at raising the larvae next week

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