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Caution – Female Turtles, even if Unmated, Must be Provided with a Nest Site

Blanding’s Turtle Laying EggsHello, Frank Indiviglio here.  Spring weather often brings me questiond concerning aquatic turtle nesting behavior. As temperatures warm (and sometimes before, as indoor turtles may be “ahead” of schedule) pet female turtles should be checked for signs that they are carrying eggs. While Red-Eared Sliders, Painted and Snapping Turtles and other largely aquatic turtles are among the hardiest reptilian pets, providing for gravid (egg-bearing) females can be very difficult…failure to do so, however, can result in the turtle’s death.

I’ve written about the problem of Dystocia, or retained eggs, in the past. Today I’d like to dispel a commonly-held belief concerning turtle reproduction, and add a few cautions.

Turtle Reproduction: Facts

Female turtles may develop eggs even if they have not mated. Animals that have mated in the past may retain sperm for years, so it’s always wise to incubate any eggs that are produced. 

Unlike some amphibians, which may absorb eggs that are not deposited, turtles, as far as we know, must expel their eggs once they have formed; otherwise, fatal infections invariably develop.

Turtle Reproduction: Misconceptions

Even among reptile keepers in zoos, it was until recently believed that, if unable to find a nesting site, gravid female turtles would deposit their eggs in the water; this was thought to be a simple alternative to providing a large, earth-filled nesting site.  Many turtles will deposit their eggs in water if other options are denied them; the problem is that they will not do so in a safe manner. 

If a suitable nest site is not available, the eggs will be retained and deposited in small numbers over 2-5 weeks, or longer, not in a single clutch as would be normal. Calcium is continually added to the retained eggs, draining the female’s supplies and rendering the eggs ever-more difficult to pass. Eventually, the eggs will break and/or decay, and an infection known as egg yolk peritonitis will set in.  If untreated, the female will die.

Determining if your Turtle is Gravid

Another misconception is that developing eggs can easily be felt via physical palpation. This is not always the case, and in any event in-expert palpation may break the eggs. 

Rather, one should note changes in the female’s behavior such as restlessness and a lack of appetite; keeping notes concerning prior egg-laying is also useful. Radiographs should be taken if you are unsure. Turtles with retained eggs may strain or become listless and unable to walk and/or swim normally.

Nesting Sites for Pet Turtles

Snapping Turtle Laying EggsIn the article linked below, I provide some thoughts on nesting sites and treatments for Dystocia. 

To it I would add that you should always strive to provide the largest nesting site possible. Bear in mind that females may be very picky when it comes to nest site selection…I’ve observed gravid turtles of many species to dig and abandon numerous nests before settling down to lay, so be prepared to change your set-up as needed. 

At the minimum, the nesting area should be 2-3x as large as the turtle, and the substrate should be at least as deep as the carapace is long.

Nest site specifics vary greatly among species…please write in for information concerning the turtles in your collection. Your observations would also be greatly appreciated, and will be shared with other readers. 

Thanks, until next time,

Frank Indiviglio

 

Further Reading

Painted Turtle laying eggs

Nesting and Sex Determination of Hatchlings in Wild Snapping Turtles

Black Soldier Flies mating image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Muhammad Mahdi Karim
Snapping Turtle Laying Eggs image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Moondigger

33 comments

  1. avatar

    Some interesting information here, thanks for posting

  2. avatar

    Hello James, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your interest and the kind words; I see that you stock a book I’ve written, Newts and Salamanders – much appreciated!

    Please let me know if I can be of any assistance with info, etc.

    Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    my acquatic turtle has quit eating her cuttle bone and has a severly overgrown beak as a result. any insight would be helpful

  4. avatar

    Hello Ashley, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your interest. Turtles may refuse to eat cuttlebone if their calcium levels are adequate. Whole fishes added to the diet will help keep the beak trim, but if it’s already overgrown you should have a vet shave it back a bit. This is easily done with a small electric grinding stone; best to have an experienced vet do the procedure. Please let me know if you need help in locating a vet with turtle experience.

    I believe you mentioned in the past that the turtle in question is a Map Turtle…several Map Turtle species specialize in feeding upon snails, crayfishes, mussels and other hard-bodied prey; their beaks tend to grow very quickly, and may need regular attention. Barbour’s Map Turtles under my care needed regular trimmings even when frequently provided with crayfishes and snails.

    Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  5. avatar

    While doing some research this morning, I came across some information you have posted on the web. I also saw that you invited people to email with questions, so I am taking you up on that offer. Please see the story below….for now we have added enough sand on the platform so that it is 3-4″ deep, we will try it and see if it stays there (there is no ridge to retain the sand, it can be pushed into the aquarium from one part of the ledge) but we are still seeking any advice. I also saw that we need to warm the area and will look into getting the type of incandescent bulb you recommended. Thank you in advance for your help. Our turtles are important top us and we want to make sure we are doing everything we can to keep her healthy and comfortable. One of our other questions is, if she does lay the eggs, do we need to incubate them?
    Oh what I surprise!!!! We thought both of our turtles were males, but apparently one is female. She has been acting strangely and constantly swimming, splashing, trying to climb the glass of our tank. It has been driving us nuts. We thought it was stress or behavioral because we had changed some things in the environment due to filter issues, etc.
    However, very early this morning she was making all kinds of noise so I got up to check on her and she was up on their platform in the sand, digging and digging and pushing the sand into a corner. Hmmmm. I got on the internet and lo and behold the behaviors she was displaying can be attributed to being gravid and needing to lay her eggs!!!!! EGGS?????? Sure enough I felt behind her hind flippers and there are two or three hard lumps I can feel. EGGS!!!!!!!
    I have no idea what to do!!!!!!!
    I called the vet and he said to get her into an area where she can nest-this is not possible in the current tank, as the platform is small and there is only an area that will hold sand 1″ deep at most.
    If you have any experience with this, please give us some advice. This is very exciting but I need to do some research. I have no idea how long she has been trying to lay her eggs or how much longer it will be, the vet said it is difficult to determine but as long as she is eating and active we should be OK. We also need to find a new environment and quick. I guess we may spend the weekend building the pond we have been thinking about.

  6. avatar

    Hi Lori,
    Thanks for your interest. Nesting site needs vary among the species…please let me know what kind of turtle you have. However, it would be rare for any to be able to nest on the platform you describe. You’ll likely need to move her into a larger may drop the eggs in the water, or may not lay if moved due to stress. A fatal infection (egg yolk peritonitis) will invariable develop if she does soon. A radiograph will reveal the number of eggs and their relative condition, and so is the vest way to determine if intervention is needed. Oxytosin injections are very effective and usually cause the female to deposit the eggs quickly. Please let me know if you need assistance in locating a vet with experience in this area.
    You will need to incubate the eggs if you wish them to hatch; details re set-up, temperature and such vary as well, so please let me know the species involved.

    Thanks, Best, Frank

  7. avatar

    Hi,
    Thank you, our turtle is an approx. 6 year old Red Ear Slider. This will be the first she lays eggs, we have had our turtles since they were very young. I did comtact a hepavet in our area, he stated to watch for lethargy and not eating or any other change in overall health. I asked if we should bring her in for an exam and he said if she is active and eating/digesting food we should just watch her and let nature take course. He did say to call him next week to follow up and see if there are any changes.
    Can you educate us specifically on why she will likely not nest on the platform? is is just not similar enough to a natural environment? What would be your suggestion for a quick habitat we could create inexpensively? We live in Florida so it is too hot outside to just place a kiddie pool and nesting area, we would need to build shade and fencing and covering to keep out raccoons, snakes, etc.
    We did add 3-4 inches of sand to the platform for now, she seems to have calmed down a little but climbs up there and then leaves again right away.
    I am just concerned about her health at this point, I do not want her to get an infection or retain her eggs. The vet was unable to give us a time frame and said an examination would not necessarily tell us when she is due to lay her eggs. is this correct? I have no idea, but there are definite ping-pong size bulges behind her hind flippers, they seem to be quite pronounced. It was noticeable right away when I picked her up and looked, I did not have to even feel them to know.

    Many thanks,
    Lori

  8. avatar

    Hi,
    The eggs are ready to be deposited if you can feel them; nest-seeking behavior only occurs at this time as well. Our vets (Bx Zoo) generally administered Oxytosin (after radiograph, just to be sure nothing else was going on) when the female rejected suitable (to us!) nesting sites.
    Nest construction is a complex activity…”test” nests are common. Turtles usually travel some distance, check soil moistuire, temperature, shade/sun exposure etc. Some use artificial sites right away, others drop eggs anywhere (in captivity). But you’ll need to provide something more spacious in order gto have a chance at inducing her to lay. Try a large plastic storage bin with 8 inches or so of moist soil mixed with sand or peat. A lamp with a25-40 wt bulb in one corner may be useful. Confine her for a day or so…most will lay within that time, if they are going to. After that, I would suggest contacting a vet.

    Click on any of the link below for one of my articles on the topic
    http://blogs.thatpetplace.com/thatreptileblog/2010/07/14/egg-retention-dystocia-in-turtles-the-problem-and-some-solutions-part-1/
    http://blogs.thatpetplace.com/thatreptileblog/2010/08/04/egg-retention-dystocia-in-turtles-the-problem-and-some-solutions-part-2/
    http://blogs.thatpetplace.com/thatreptileblog/2011/10/14/caution-female-turtles-even-if-unmated-must-be-provided-with-a-nest-site/
    Best, Frank

  9. avatar

    Hi Lori,

    Thanks for posting.

    I may have neglected to provide a link to this list of Turtle-Experienced Vets; you’ll find a number in Florida. If none are convenient, ask for a reference to a nearby practice that treats reptiles (the specialty is rather small, so vets often know one another).

    Good luck, please keep me posted, Frank

  10. avatar
    laughren@yahoo.com

    Hi,

    Our turtle still had not laid any eggs this week so last night we took into the vet. X rays confirmed she has 4 eggs and is ready to lay them. She has rejected both areas we have inside for her (we had built another one in a large plastic bin following your intructions and confined her for 2 days) so we are now building an outdoor pond with a nesting area. The vet said due to the position of the eggs that it looks like we have a week or two before she is “in trouble” and needs to be induced. If she does not lay in the next 3 weeks we plan to induce her and hopefully then she will lay the eggs.

    So, now we are busy trying to get the outdoor environment built for her, we don’t have much time.

    She seems very healthy otherwise and continues to have lots of energy and is eating well.

    Thank you again for your help and guidance. This is most definately a surprise and a new area of learning for us.

  11. avatar

    Hello,

    Thanks for the kind words…I’m glad to be of help. You’re taking all the right steps; please be sure that the enclosure is rat-raccoon-dog etc. proof; all are able to kill adult turtles.

    An incubator http://bitly.com/J3r4ae is the surest way to hatch eggs (eggs may or may not be fertile), but I have incubator slider eggs successfully in a warm room of my home, with no additional heat. Coarse grade vermiculite is the best substrate to use; I can go over the details when you are ready if you wish. Interestingly, the sex of the embryos is determined by incubation temperature, not genetic factors, so you can “pick and choose” if you wish!

    Best, Frank

  12. avatar
    laughren@yahoo.com

    Finally have an update on our RES turtles. We were doing our best to build an outdoor pond habitat so that Penelope could lay her eggs, but we had a few challenges and it was taking too long. So, this weekend we dug a much smaller area and fenced it in and moved all of her nesting sand mixture out there for her. We will see how both turtles do, we wanted to keep them together so her mate is out with her.

    We have 1-2 weeks before will need to induce her according to the vet and recent x rays.

  13. avatar

    Hi,

    Thanks for the update and hope all goes well. Best to remove the male – the female’s natural instinct will be to get away from him after breeding, and especially when laying eggs. These behaviors become modified in captivity, but his presence now may inhibit egg-laying.

    Best, Frank

  14. avatar
    laughren@yahoo.com

    Thank you, I was wondering whether or not we should remove him. She still has not laid her eggs. I will try letting her be out there by herself. We contacted the vet again today to give him an update and we may induce her on Tuesday if she still has not laid the eggs.

  15. avatar

    My pleasure…I hope all goes well;

    Please keep me posted., best, Frank

  16. avatar
    laughren@yahoo.com

    Hi,

    We’re needing some additional advice. Penelope has still not laid her eggs. We have been giving her calcium the past two weeks via injection at the vet and daily in her food. Her x ray from today showed she still has 5 eggs, but the eggs have not “dropped” at all. The vet does not yet recommend inducing her.

    Another challenge is that her temporary outdoor habitat (we are still working on building the permanent pond habitat) has been a challenge to keep as clean as we would like and the water quality is not as good as in our indoor aquarium. We have had daily torrential rains as well which is not helping. The rains are expected to continue for about another week. We are concerned because she has started to develop small brown spots one one of her flippers and in her face and throat area. They are superficial but the vet said it could be a sign of infection. I will email you a picture today if we can get one.

    Any advice or recommendations would be appreciated.
    Thanks!

  17. avatar

    Hi,

    The timing of oxytosin injections is well-established, so I think relying upon x-rays is the way to go. Calcium may help to improve muscle contraction strength, and therefore ability to move the eggs along.

    Betadine, Acriflavine (best in my experience) and various over-the-counter human fungal treatments can be used on skin fungus, if that is what is present. Photo would not likely be useful, unfortunately..really need a first-hand look, lab test if that doesn’t help. Acriflavine in water, at fish strength, can do no harm; some vets advise salt, but need to determine if fungal, bacterial or other. Is the turtle basking and drying off completely in the outdoor enclosure? failure to do so often leads to skin problems in sliders and related species.

    Please keep me posted, Best, Frank

  18. avatar
    laughren@yahoo.com

    We live in Florida and are wondering whether or not we need to install a heater in our outdoor pond for the winter. The lowest water temp. thus far was 60 degrees, but the temps at night have barely dipped into the 40s. The two turtles are adult RES, approx. 8 inches. One is a gravid female. Both are healthy. The turtles were introduced to their pond habitat in early August so they have had some time to adjust.

    Our pond is apprx. 900 gallons and is 3 feet deep at its deepest point; avg depth is 2 ft. The bottom is covered with 1-2″ of river rock and there is no mud or leaves to allow the turtle to dig and keep warm.

    If we do need a heater, which type is recommended? Also, should we reduce feeding in the winter months? We currently feed them every other day and they get a varied diet of fresh veggies, occasional fruit, and high-quality pellets.

    Thanks for your help!

  19. avatar

    Hello,

    Nice to hear of sliders being kept in such good conditions!

    Florida can be tricky; 2 years ago, there were major die-offs of reptiles, even in the south, during the unusually cold winter. Sliders overwinter successfully here in NY, and points north, but there are risks involved. At 60 F, they tend to stay fairly active, may bask on nice days, and will eat sporadically. Warming water to 68 or above is safer, but they will still be breathing cold air. The immune systems are not working at full speed at those temps, so there’s always a risk of bacterial infection, etc. True hibernation (temps at 50 or below) is difficult to attempt. But sliders generally do well if water remains in 60’s, even if air is colder and especially if, as in Florida, they will have a chance to bask on warm days.

    However, if the female is gravid she will likely run into problems; she’ll not lay as temperatures drop, and there’s a good chance the eggs will decompose and cause a fatal infection (egg yolk peritonitis or related). I suggest a vet visit for xrays and an oxytosin injection if appropriate; this will cause her to release the eggs. Let the vet know your situation…you may be advised to keep the turtle indoors over the winter. Please let me know if you need help in locating a turtle-experienced vet.

    Fish pond heaters are available; here is an example; I do not have any experience with this modal; there are likely many available in Florida and people knowledgeable as to their use, given the number of fish wholesalers, etc. I can contact an experienced friend in your state if you need help in finding a heater and info on size etc.

    Please keep me posted, best, Frank

  20. avatar
    laughren@yahoo.com

    We have taken our turtles to the vet and our female has apprently laid her eggs as none showed in her X ray. However, now the other one has an egg, so I guess we have two females. This has been quite an adventure.

    We will look into heaters, if you have a contact here it would be helpful. Most of the retailers and pond supply stores we have contacted have not provided much info and tell us we do not need one.

  21. avatar

    Hello,

    Thanks for the feedback.

    This company has a Florida branch (scroll to bottom); I do not have nay experience with them, but they seem to offer a variety of options…if you call and explain your needs they may be able to help.

    Best, Frank

  22. avatar

    I have 3 red eared sliders 2 males 1 female which are 6 years of age.  I have in 60 gallon aquarium and never had intentions of breeding.   I had seperated in same aquarium the males and female with a divider.   The female seems as if she is digging to hatch.  Financially not wanting to breed nor do I have space.  Do I ignore the fact the female wants to hatch as she is in a aquarium?
    I heard it can be dangerous if she holds her eggs.  So do I take her out daily in a area with dirt for an hour and out her back in aquarium? What should I do. Please this is nerve recon and with a dp respect a donation will be provided with your help. Looking online blogs seems a bit confusing.   Please your response is important and want to keep female safe from her keeping eggs in her not hatching them.

  23. avatar

    Hello Daniel,

    Egg retention is a serious problem; in addition to the concerns mentioned in this article, please see the articles linked below for more info.

    Unfortunately, it’s difficult to distinguish the need to lay eggs by behavior alone in a small aquarium without a land area (as the turtle cannot dig, etc); a 60 gallon is quite small for 2 adult sliders, so simple “restlessness” cold be involved. Removing the turtle to a large nesting area can work, but many turtles refuse to nest unless all is perfect…please see this article and those linked below for specific info on the size needed, etc.

    Bottom line: the only way to ascertain if eggs are present is via a vet exam utilizing ultra-sound or similar tests. Palpating, as you may have read about, is only useful when the eggs are fully developed and ready to be deposited, and then only if one has a good deal of experience. Please let me know if you need help in locating an experienced reptile veterinarian.

    Egg retention, nest site construction:
    http://blogs.thatpetplace.com/thatreptileblog/2010/07/14/egg-retention-dystocia-in-turtles-the-problem-and-some-solutions-part-1/#.UxixkIVnupE
    http://blogs.thatpetplace.com/thatreptileblog/2010/08/04/egg-retention-dystocia-in-turtles-the-problem-and-some-solutions-part-2/#.UxixtoVnupE

    Best regards, Frank

  24. avatar

    I have 2 female turtles.I have kept them in a tank .
    5-6 eggs were laid in the tank this week .so are the eggs not fertile?what should I do with the eggs?

  25. avatar

    Hello Udai,

    Turtles can store sperm for some time, so there is a chance that the eggs are fertile. Incubation time and temperature depends upon the species, but in general you can bury them in soil or vermiculite and enclose within a covered plastic container. Bury eggs half-way, so that 1/2 is visible above the surface. Open once for a few minutes daily to allow air exchange. The soil should remain moist enough so that it just clumps together when squeezed by hand. Place container in an area that stays appx. 27-32 C. Please feel free to send info re the exact species involved if you would like more specific info.

    Best, Frank

  26. avatar

    Hello Frank,

    I seek counsel for my female red eyed slider turtle. She is with me since September 25, 2011. Very small then and has eventually transformed into a beauty with a shell size of 20 cms. She has a healthy routine of basking, feeding and playfully enjoying in my lawn.

    To my surprise she laid an egg today in her water tank. Though without mating. I was confounded and dumbstruck at this site. Sadly the egg was soon destroyed by her only within a few minutes after laying.

    I am still perplexed at such turn of events. Any help will be greatly appreciated. Looking forward to hear back from you soon.

    Thanks,
    Varsha
    India

  27. avatar

    Hello Varsha,

    Since you got her when she was young, it’s safe to assume she had not mated and so any eggs produced will be infertile. She may continue to produce eggs in the future. Usually several are deposited at once, but single eggs may also appear. I’s a good sign that she is passing them, otherwise a nest site would be necessary. Just watch that she does not go off-feed and become restless, as described in the article. otherwise, no harm in producing infertile eggs, as long as she gets plenty of calcium (whole fish with bones) and direct sunlight or exposure to a UVB bulb. Please see this article and let me know if you need more info, best , Frank

  28. avatar

    My red ear slider is gravid for the past two weeks and she still havent lay her eggs even though we’ve made a nesting site for her. She seemed to have rejected the site after giving a few tries to dig inside. Furthermore, she has released quite an amount of transparent liquid while she was ‘digging’ the floor. Is that phenomenon common among RES or is she showing signs of retaining eggs? Your help would be very much appreciated, thanks!

  29. avatar

    Hi Claire,

    They release the fluid while digging, just prior to laying the eggs; this is a sign that she is ready and should deposit the eggs. It’s common for them to reject nesting sites…temperature, soil depth, humidity etc must be right (for some, others drop eggs anywhere). Since she’s ready, you might try putting her outdoors and watching, if you have a yard or quiet area of earth/weeds etc available. If she does not lay right away, she should be seen by a vet ASAP’ a simple oxytosin injection will cause eggs to be released fairly quickly. Once the eggs are in a developed state,an infection is inevitable if they are retained. Pl let me know if you need help in locating a vet, best, Frank

  30. avatar

    Hi,

    For the past 2 months I would say, my female RES has laid eggs twice. We recently got what we thought was a female, we took it to the vet to find out it was a male. A couple weeks ago, I noticed the newer turtle we got, looked to be tickling my females face with its front nails. I did some research after we found out our newer turtle was a male, & thats a sign of wanting to mate. Now our turtle is not interested in food, & its basking a lot. (like she has in the past when shes caring eggs) We usually take her to our yard & she digs & lays them there. But how will I know if shes caring fertilized eggs or duds? Shes acting like she has in the past when carrying eggs, but now that we have the male, if he showed signs of mating like that, did they mate? Is there anyway to know forsure if they mated? Thanks for reading! Can’t wait for a reply!

  31. avatar

    Hello Brittany,

    There’s no way to determine fertility now, but it’s always good to incubate the eggs if you want hatchlings…females can store sperm for years, so a prior mating in a store etc can lead to fertile eggs as well. Males sometimes harass females that are unable to move away from them…constant mating attempts etc- if this happens you may need to separate them for a time. let me know if you need info on incubating, best, Frank

  32. avatar

    I have a 4 year old Yellow Bellied Slider, my son brought her home from Florida gift shop when she was about the size of a half dollar. She is now 7 to 8 inches long. She has never layer any eggs. I did not have a nesting site for her, didn’t know it would be needed since she is an only turtle. My husband and I have build a new basking area and nesting box on top of her tank, I need to know what type of material I need to fill her nesting box wIth. And I need to know if you think she could already be “egg bound”. She eats everyday, and begs for food everytime I walk into the room, she basks a lot of the day, she stays in the water at night when her basking light is off , I have it on a timer. She has a heat lamp and a uvb lamp. She appears healthy, growing, esting, swimming, active, shell and beak in great condition. But I am worried she could have eggs hardening inside her. Please advise on when yellow bellied sliders begin to lay eggs and the best substance to fill her nesting box with. Thank you. I live in Tennessee near Nashville.

  33. avatar

    Hi Farrah,

    Congrats on the fine job! You would see signs if the turtle had eggs..restless, no interest in food, etc., so don’t worry; not all do so…a musk turtle in my collection is 45 years old, and only produced eggs after mating…very variable. Captivity changes natural cycling etc, so there’s no way to predict when, if ever, eggs might be produced. You can use a mix of top soil and peat moss in the nest box. Enjoy and please keep me posted, frank

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About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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