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Tortoise Care – Keeping Desert, Forest and Grassland Tortoises

Flat Tailed TortoiseHello, Frank Indiviglio here. Tortoises are highly prized by reptile fans. They are extremely responsive, quickly recognizing those who feed them, and readily learn from experience. Unfortunately, new owners are often unaware of their very specific care requirements, and many fail to thrive. Given the precarious state of their wild populations, it is unethical to keep these amazing animals unless you are fully prepared to meet their needs. Please write in for further guidance.

The Bronx Zoo’s collection was very “tortoise/turtle oriented” during my tenure, and I had the good fortune to work with dozens of species both there and in the field. From rare Flat-Tailed (Pyxis planicauda) and tiny Egyptian Tortoises (Testudo kleinmanni) to 500 pound Aldabra and Galapagos Tortoises, each brought challenges and new lessons. Hopefully, what I’ve learned will be of benefit to other keepers, and to the spectacular animals in which they are interested.

The following information can be applied to the care of a variety of species. However, details will vary; please write in for information on individual species. 

Natural History

Fifty-three tortoise species roam the grasslands, deserts and tropical forests of Africa (where they reach their greatest diversity) North and South America, Europe, and Asia.

All tortoises live on land and feed mainly on vegetation. They range in size from the 4-inch-long Speckled Padloper (Homopus signatus) to the 500+ pound Aldabra and Galapagos Tortoises. 

Housing

Setting up the Terrarium

Tortoises need far more room than most folks imagine. Only the smallest, such as Spectacled and Russian Tortoises, can be accommodated in commercial cages. Adults generally do best in enclosures that have been constructed with their needs in mind. 

Egyptian Tortoise Glass aquariums are unsuitable (please see this article). Respiratory problems may develop due to insufficient ventilation, and space will usually be a concern. Also, aquariums rarely allow for the establishment of a thermal gradient.  Thermal gradients, critical to good health, allow tortoises to regulate their body temperature by moving between hot and cooler areas. 

Outdoor maintenance is possible in suitable climates. Please write in for details.

Plastic-based rabbit cages are preferable to aquariums, but most tortoises will outgrow these in time. Cattle troughs can also be modified as tortoise homes.

This Table Top Tortoise Terrarium is an ideal enclosure for many species. The Zoo Med Tortoise Home can be expanded with additional units, and is well-worth investigating.

Substrate

“Playground” sand is suitable for Radiated, Leopard and other tortoises native to arid environments. An equal amount of sand and topsoil can be used for Yellow-Footed Tortoises and other forest dwellers.

Although impactions due to swallowed sand and soil are rare, it is best to provide food in large bowls so that ingestion is limited. 

The substrate should be deep enough to allow your tortoise to dig a shallow pallet (sleeping depression) at night. Dry grass clumps can also be provided as shelter.

Light

Tortoises need daily exposure to high levels of UVB light. Natural sunlight is best, but be aware that glass and plastic filter out UVB rays, and that fatal overheating can occur very quickly.

Use a high-output UVB bulb (the Zoo Med 10.0 Bulb is ideal), and position the basking site within 6-12 inches of it.Mercury vapor and halogen bulbs broadcast UVB over greater distances, and provide beneficial UVA radiation as well.

Heat

Pancake TortoiseMost tortoises require a basking site of 90-95 F, but must be able to move into cooler areas (75-88 F) as well.  Incandescent heat bulbs should be used to maintain these temperatures; red/black night bulbs or ceramic heater-emitters work well after dark.  

Humidity

Desert and grassland tortoises develop health problems in damp enclosures, but low humidity has been associated with growth abnormalities in several species. Please write in for details.

Travancore Tortoises and other forest-dwellers need access to moist and dry areas. 

Companions

Females and youngsters often co-exist, but must be watched as dominance hierarchies will develop. Males will fight, and often harass females with near-constant mating attempts.

Feeding

A great deal of conflicting information has been published on the subject of nutrition, and confusion concerning this critical aspect of tortoise husbandry is common. Unfortunately, small dietary mistakes will translate into major health concerns in short order. 

Grassland and Desert Tortoises

Greek TortoiseGrassland and desert species (i.e. Russian, Greek, Spurred and Pancake Tortoises) have evolved to consume a diet that is high in fiber and calcium and low in protein, fruit and fat. In the wild, grasses and herbaceous plants are their primary foods. Beans, dog food and other protein sources should be avoided, and fruit limited to an occasional treat. Honeysuckle, dandelion, clover and other native grasses, weeds and flowers can make up the bulk of the diet when available; please see this article http://blogs.thatpetplace.com/thatreptileblog/2009/07/29/tortoise-diets-mediterranean-species-and-russian-horsfield%E2%80%99s-tortoises/ for further information.The balance may consist of greens such as kale, endive, Swiss chard and romaine; avoid spinach and iceberg lettuce. Zoo Med’s Grassland Tortoise Diet http://www.thatpetplace.com/natural-grassland-tortoise-food may be added to salads. Hay (but not Timothy) should be provided to Spurred and Leopard Tortoises.

Rainforest Tortoises

Rainforest natives, such as African Hinge-backed, Yellow and Red-Footed Tortoises, require a diet rich in a wide variety of leafy greens, fruits, and vegetables. A small weekly meal of moist cat food, along with canned http://www.thatpetplace.com/pet-supplies-search#!Reptile-Supplies/reptile-food&ea_c=feeder-insects or live snails, earthworms and super mealworms, will satisfy their protein requirements. 

Vitamin, Minerals and Water

Yellow footed TortoiseThe calcium requirements of all tortoises appear to be quite high. Food should be powdered with Zoo Med ReptiCalcium with D3 or a similar product. A Vitamin/mineral supplement such as Reptivite with D3 should be used 2-3 times weekly. 

Water should be available, but damp conditions present a health hazard. A twice-weekly 15 minute soak should be provided if water bowls are routinely tipped, or if your tortoises seem not to be drinking regularly.

Other Feeding Considerations

High protein diets have been associated with “pyramiding” and other growth deformities in several species.
Adults can be fed 5-7 times weekly, juveniles daily.

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook.  Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable.  I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. 

Thanks, until next time,
Frank Indiviglio

Further Reading

NY Turtle & Tortoise Society Seminar (Galapagos Tortoises, others)

Turtle Conservancy Newsletter: Ploughshare Tortoises mating

Tortoises Learn by Imitation

Radiated Tortoise videos and info

Flat Tailed Tortoise image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Mark Pelligrini
Greek Tortoise image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Derek Coetzee
Yellow-footed Tortoise image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Geoff Gallice

Lizard Conservation in the USA – 2012 Declared “Year of the Lizard”

Collared LizardHello, Frank Indiviglio here. The Partnership for Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC), a group comprised of private citizens, herpetologists, environmental organizations and others, has made great progress in the 10 years since its inception. 2011’s “Year of the Turtle” effort was especially effective in raising support for tortoise and turtle conservation. This year, the group has turned its attention to lizards, with an emphasis on North America’s many unique and imperiled species.

Lizard Conservation Overview

In the eye of the general public, lizards do not suffer the “image problem” that besets snakes, yet they lack the appeal of turtles and frogs. And so their conservation needs are, with few exceptions, not well-known. I sometimes wonder if the high visibility of a few common anoles and geckos in warm locales leads some (non-herp-oriented) people to regard lizard populations as relatively secure.  Read More »

Anaconda Attacks – Notes from a Study of Wild Snakes in Venezuela

Green AnacondaHello, Frank Indiviglio here.  Green Anacondas (Eunectes murinus) and other giant constrictors inspire tall tales among those not well-acquainted with them, and respect in those who are.  African Rock and Reticulated Pythons have taken humans as prey (please see this article), and Burmese Pythons have caused fatalities, but information concerning Green Anaconda attacks is sketchy.  Their aquatic lifestyle and tendency to inhabit sparsely-populated areas renders it difficult to discern fact from fiction.  Today I’d like to provide some personal observations drawn from my time working with Anacondas in the field.

Tagging Wild Anacondas – a Herper’s Dream Job

In the mid 1990’s, while working for the Bronx Zoo, I had the good fortune of participating in a long-term field study of Green Anacondas in Venezuela – the first and only one of its kind.  Over 900 specimens were captured, and a treasure-trove of new facts was documented. Read More »

Asian or Chinese Water Dragon – Captive Care and Common Health Concerns

Water DragonHello, Frank Indiviglio here. The Asian or Chinese Water Dragon (Physignathus cocincinus) superficially resembles the Green Iguana and is popular with those iguana fans lacking the space for a 6 foot-long lizard. Alert, beautifully-colored and interesting, they are among the best of all large lizard pets. Water Dragons are subject to several unique health concerns but, as will be explained, all can be easily avoided.

Asian Water Dragons range from southern China through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. They are always found near water, frequenting riversides, swamps and canals. The less-common Eastern Water Dragon, Physignathus leseurii, may also be kept as described below.

Behavior

Water Dragons are alert and somewhat high-strung, and will run from noises, cats, dogs, and other threats.  In the wild, frightened individuals drop from branches to the water or dash into heavy cover; captives retain this instinct and are often injured during escape attempts.  While most calm down and accept gentle handling, always avoid startling your pet. Read More »

Salmonella Prevention – Guidelines for Reptile and Amphibian Owners

SalmonellaHello, Frank Indiviglio here. Zoonotic diseases (those that can pass from animals to people) such Salmonella bacteria infections are a potential concern in the keeping of any pet. Many people associate Salmonella with reptiles, but nearly any animal, including dogs, cats and birds, may harbor this troublesome micro-organism. Handling an animal that carries Salmonella will not cause an infection; the bacteria are harmful to people only if ingested.

Note: This article is intended for general informational purposes and is not meant to replace a doctor’s advice. Please consult your physician or veterinarian for specific information concerning disease prevention and treatment. 

Avoiding Salmonella: Knowledge is Key

Fortunately, Salmonella infections can be avoided by following a few simple rules. Healthy individuals have a relatively low risk of becoming infected; infants, and people with compromised immune systems, are more susceptible. Please see the CDC’s website, below, for further information. Read More »

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