Small Pet Turtles: Black-Breasted Leaf Turtle Care

Geoemyda spengleri

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Stavenn

Small size, a uniquely-beautiful shell and the habit of raising the long neck to “stare” at its owner with large, protruding eyes endears this charming turtle to all. I first came across the Black-Breasted Leaf Turtle (Geoemyda spengleri) while working on plans to conserve Asian turtles devastated by collection for the food and medicinal trades (please see article linked below). Although reputed to be a delicate captive, zoo and private turtle keepers have learned much about its needs in recent years, and captive-born animals are becoming more available. Under the care of an experienced turtle keeper, this personable beauty can make a wonderful pet that exhibits all the spunk of its larger relatives.

 

Turtle Description

This little turtle’s “bug-eyed” stare is often the first characteristic to grab one’s attention. The elongated carapace is strongly notched at the rear, and each marginal scute (scale) is pointed and flared upwards. The carapace ranges from dark to rich orange-brown in coloration, and the plastron is black with a yellow border. Adults top out at a mere 4-5 inches in length.

 

Leaf Turtle Natural History

G. spengleri habitat type

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Jtri

The Black-Breasted Leaf Turtle ranges from southern China through Laos and Vietnam, where it is mainly restricted to moist hillside forests; the uniquely-shaped carapace offers excellent camouflage among the leaf litter. Although largely terrestrial, shallow forest pools and streams are used for soaking and foraging. Its life in the wild has not been well-studied.

 

Pet Qualities

Although shy at first, these alert turtles adjust to captivity quickly, and soon learn to feed from the hand. Black-Breasted Leaf Turtles have a reputation as delicate captives, and losses were high when they first showed up in the US pet trade in the 1980’s. Parasitic infections, the stress of shipping and a poor understanding of their needs were largely responsible for early difficulties with wild-caught individuals.

 

The Terrarium

Black-Breasted Leaf Turtles are native to thickly-vegetated habitats, and will not thrive in bare enclosures. Cover in the form of live or plastic plants, caves, and a substrate into which they can burrow is essential to their well-being. A pool of shallow water should be available.

 

Although small in size, these turtles are quite active once habituated to their new homes, and should be provided with as much room as possible. A single adult may be kept in a 30 gallon long-style aquarium, but additional room is preferable.

 

Terrarium Substrate

A mix of topsoil, peat and sphagnum moss, deep enough for your pet to burrow into, may be used as a substrate.

 

Lighting

Black-Breasted Leaf Turtles must be provided with a source of UVB radiation. Natural sunlight is best, but it must be direct, as glass and plastic filter-out UVB rays.

 

When using UVB bulbs, be sure that your turtle can bask within the distance recommended by the manufacturer. I favor Zoo Med bulbs, which are available in a wide variety of strengths and styles.

 

Heat and Humidity

Although native to tropical regions, Black-Breasted Leaf Turtles prefer cooler temperatures than one might expect. A temperature gradient of 68- 74 F should be established, along with a basking site set at 80 F.

 

Humidity should be kept at 50-60%, and areas of both moist and dry substrate should be available.

 

tp35833Turtle Feeding

The wild diet consists primarily of insects, worms, snails, carrion, and small amounts of fruit. Pets should be offered a diet comprised of whole animals such as earthworms, crickets and other insects, prawn, canned snails, minnows, an occasional pre-killed pink mouse and a variety of fruits (many refuse fruit, and seem to do fine without). Goldfish should be used sparingly, if at all, as a steady goldfish diet has been linked to kidney and liver disorders in other turtle species.

 

Commercial turtle chows are not accepted unless moistened, and then not always. The calcium requirements of Black-Breasted Leaf Turtles, especially growing youngsters and gravid females, are quite high. All foods (other than whole fish) should be powdered with a reptile calcium supplement. A cuttlebone may also be left in the cage. Vitamin/mineral supplements may be used 2-3 times weekly.

 

Breeding

A single, unusually-large egg (rarely 2) is produced 1-3 times yearly. Females sometimes have difficulty passing their eggs, especially if the diet lacks sufficient calcium.

 

Gravid (egg-bearing) females usually become restless and may refuse food. They should be removed to a large container (i.e. 5x the length and width of the turtle) provisioned with 6-8 inches of slightly moist soil and sand. Gravid females that do not nest should be seen by a veterinarian as egg retention invariably leads to a fatal infection known as egg peritonitis. It is important to note that females may develop eggs even if un-mated, and that captives may produce several clutches each year.

 

Eggs incubated at 82 F typically hatch in 62-75 days.

 

Males may stress or bite females during mating attempts. Males cannot be kept together, as they will usually fight. Females also establish a dominance hierarchy, and must be watched closely if kept in groups.

 

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

The Asian Turtle Extinction Crisis

Nest Sites for Female Turtles

 

Venomous Snake Identification: the Best Online Guide for US Species

Cottonmouth

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Geoff Gallice

As the weather warms, snake identification requests are becoming more common on my blog. Of most concern to those unfamiliar with reptiles is the possibility of encountering venomous species. Often, a fleeting glance is all that has been had, and identification proves very difficult. So today I’d like to direct folks to some useful online and published resources that are useful to review before a snake is sighted as well as after. Of course, please continue to post your questions and observations as well…some species are quite distinctive, and other times the location of the sighting or certain behaviors can be used to narrow down the possibilities.

 

I’ve been involved with snake bite response efforts through the Bronx Zoo and other organizations for most of my working life, and have learned that, in the USA, most bites occur when people disturb snakes or keep venomous species as “pets”. Worldwide, the situation is different, with an astonishing number of people being bitten, often fatally, in the course of their daily activities (please see the article linked under “Further Reading”). Please heed the cautions provided below.

 

Note: The following information should not be used to determine if a snake is safe to handle or approach, nor should any other printed guideline. Aberrations in color or pattern, injuries, hybridization and other factors – including the very real possibility of escaped non-native “pets” – can render identification impossible to all but a well-seasoned expert. Concerning exotic escapees, bear in mind that we still have much to learn…and that two prominent herpetologists were killed by snakes thought to be relatively harmless! Also, please note that the flood of both accurate and outright ridiculous information on the internet sometimes inspires a feeling of false confidence in the inexperienced, and gives credence to the old saying “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”!

 

Coral Snake

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The primary resources listed here are based on Florida’s venomous snakes. However, Florida is home to representatives of each type native to the USA, and the state’s museums and universities have a long history of fine educational efforts in this area. Specifics as to species found in other parts of the country will vary…please see the notes on field guides, and post below if you would like a guide to the species present in your state or region.

 

University of Florida Website

Prepared by the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Dealing with Snakes – IS IT VENOMOUS? provides a great overview of the 4 general types of venomous snakes found in the USA – copperheads, rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and coral snakes.   The most easily-recognizable characteristics of each are highlighted, which makes it simpler for inexperienced observers to decide whether a harmless or venomous snake has passed their way.

 

You can also view individual pages on each of Florida’s venomous snakes. These include additional characteristics, habitat notes, photos, range maps and other useful details.

 

Timber rattlesnake

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Rkillcrazy

Florida Museum of Natural History Website

The FMNH Snake Identification Key is based on the detailed identification tools used by professional herpetologists and serious snake-watchers. However, it has been modified to focus on color and pattern only – those characteristics that tend to catch the average observer’s attention, and which are easier to recall than finer details. Once you’ve eliminated characteristics that do not fit the snake you’ve seen, and have made a tentative identification, you can click on a photo and see if it matches your observation.

 

Using keys to identify a snake can be fun, and it’s easy to turn the process into a game that children will enjoy and benefit from.

 

Field Guides

I’ve relied on the Peterson Field Guides and their predecessors since childhood, and they remain the gold standard for on-site reptile and amphibian (and other animal) identifications. There is also a “first field guide” series and a wonderful field guide coloring book for children. Please check here for further information on these.

Hi, my name is Frank Indiviglio. I’m a herpetologist, zoologist, and book author, recently retired from a career spent at several zoos, aquariums, and museums, including over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo.

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.

 

Further Reading

Venomous Snakebites: My experiences and a New Study

 

Black Mamba Memories 

 

Rattlesnake Overview

Zoo Med Pacman Frog Food for Horned Frogs and African Bullfrogs

t264488Frog owners have recently been presented with an interesting alternative to live insects and rodents as a pet food source. Continuing its trend of pioneering innovative, well-researched products, Zoo Med has introduced a powdered food that can be molded into various sizes and tong-fed to frogs. Although long-term studies on the value of commercial diets are lacking, experience indicates that some prepared/artificial diets have proven very useful. For example, thousands of generations of Mexican Axolotls have been bred (in research labs) on beef liver alone, African Clawed Frogs and many newts do well on Reptomin-based diets, and trout chow seems useful for American Bullfrogs. In both in zoos and my own collection, I have raised Mexican Axolotls and various newts, salamander larvae, and tadpoles primarily on trout chow and Reptomin. Zoo Med’s Pacman Food is eagerly accepted by African Bull and Horned Frogs (no surprises there -please see video below!) and Marine Toads. It’s likely that other “bold” amphibians, such as White’s Treefrogs, Fire Salamanders, American Toads, would be willing give this untraditional food a try as well.

 

Why Consider a Prepared Diet?

Usually, commercial diets are promoted for convenience-sake and as an option for pet owners who do not wish to handle live insects or rodents. However, I’m mainly interested in Zoo Med’s Pacman Frog Food because it may help to solve 2 recurring problems faced by frog owners. The first is the difficulty in providing adequate dietary variety. Wild amphibians utilize dozens to hundreds of species as food, but most pets must make do with 2-3 food items at best. Owners of African Bullfrogs, Horned Frogs, Cane Toads and other giants face the additional task of “filling-up” their pets and providing enough calcium without over-using rodents (while some success has been had on

Argentine Horned Frog

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by avmaier

mouse-based diets, there are also risks…please see this article).

 

Providing enough high-quality food can be a major undertaking – please see the article linked below to read about an African Bullfrog caught in the act of swallowing 17 baby cobras! Zoo Med’s product, which one mixes with a bit of water, can be molded into any size (or shape!), and so might be useful to people keeping dinner-plate sized amphibian behemoths.

 

Some Considerations

We do not have studies illustrating benefits or problems associated with this food; long-term success is claimed by a Japanese company manufacturing a related product. The examples I mentioned earlier (amphibians fed dry foods, liver, etc.) may be somewhat relevant, but we cannot draw any direct conclusions about Horned Frogs or others from these.

 

Surinam Horned Frog

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Maarten Sepp

I would suggest trying Zoo Med Pacman food as a portion of your pets’ diets. Continue to provide as much variety as possible, and choose from nutritious foods such as roaches, earthworms, sowbugs, minnows, crickets and silkworms. Please see the article linked below for other ideas, including the use of wild-caught insects.

 

In posts on other sites, some folks have expressed concern over the plant-based ingredients in this product, or the fact that fish is used as a protein source. While on-point research is lacking, it is well-known that frogs and other carnivorous animals take in a good deal of plant matter in the course of feeding upon herbivorous prey species. Fish, which I and others have long fed to many large frogs, does not seem to present any problems. Zoo Med Pacman Food also contains added vitamins and minerals, including calcium and Vitamin D.

 

Those who have tried will not need this warning (I’m sure!), but I should remind you not to feed Horned or African Bullfrogs with your fingers. The bony, tooth-like spikes that protrude from their jaws can inflict severe injuries. As most frogs seem to lack “self-control” when it comes to lunging at prey, use plastic feeding tongs only…sharp-edged metal models may injure your pets’ mouths.

 

Hi, my name is Frank Indiviglio. I’m a herpetologist, zoologist, and book author, recently retired from a career spent at several zoos, aquariums, and museums, including over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo.

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.

 

Further Reading

Video: Using Pacman Food

African Bullfrog Consumes 17 Baby Cobras

Nutritious Live Foods for Frogs

 

Reptile UVB Bulbs: Insights on the Best from Zoo-Based Herpetologists

Ploughshare Tortoise

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Hans Hillewaert

I recently attended the NY Turtle and Tortoise Society’s (always fabulous!) annual conference on turtle and tortoise care and conservation, and had a chance to catch up with friends and former zoo co-workers. I learned that certain UVB bulbs manufactured by Zoo Med have been used to achieve significant improvements in the health and (possibly) reproductive output of captive tortoises. Over the course of my career as a zookeeper and herpetologist, I’ve tried to convince my zoo colleagues to consider the promising reptile care products available in the pet trade. I was not always (or, perhaps, not often!) successful, but zookeepers were doing the same elsewhere, and progress was made. Today, many products favored by well-informed private herp keepers are also in use in the world’s leading zoological parks. In this article I’ll relate some interesting findings concerning the role of UVB bulbs and sunlight in the care of Radiated Tortoise (Astrochelys radiata) and other h

 

The conference I attended is a day-long event sponsored annually by my favorite turtle care and conservation organization, the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society; please check this website to read about their fine work…and to see photos from my recent presentation there. As in so many years past, legendary herpetologist Peter Pritchard graciously traveled to NYC to anchor the event.

 

t262180gVitamin D3 Deficiency

Through presentations and conversations, I learned that Zoo Med T5 UVB and Mercury Vapor Bulbs have proven useful in the care of Radiated Tortoises (Astrochelys radiata) and other heliothermic (basking) reptiles. When blood tests revealed low levels of circulating D3, the UVB bulbs in a large tortoise exhibit were replaced with those mentioned above. Florescent bulbs (the Zoo Med T5), which do not emit significant heat, were paired with mercury vapor bulbs, which produce both heat and UVB. This technique, useful for pets as well, assures maximum UVB exposure by drawing animals to a heat source. When possible, the Radiated Tortoises were also exposed to several hours of natural, unfiltered sunlight.

 

Research is ongoing, but the tortoises’ D3 levels are now at normal levels, and several previously-infertile females have produced viable eggs. I’m interested to see if the effects of the bulbs and the sunlight can be distinguished (nothing tops natural sunlight, of course).

 

Several Ringtail Lemurs that share the tortoise exhibit also became very fond of basking under the new lights…maybe some bright young researcher will be asked to look into sunscreen for non-human primates!

 

T5 and Mercury Vapor Bulbs

Zoo Med’s T5 Florescent Bulbs are available in two strengths and several lengths, and must be paired with T5 fixtures or hoods. They are rated to emit UVB over a distance of 22-24 inches, at levels that double the output of Zoo Med’s traditional bulbs (anecdotal evidence may indicate a greater range, but further work is needed). In situations where traditional bulbs will be adequate, Zoo Med’s standard 5.0 and 10.0 are good choices. One study found that they out-performed similar models (please see the article linked below). Both models provide UVA as well.

 

Zoo Med’s Powersun and Exo-Terra’s Solar Glow Mercury Vapor Bulbs broadcast UVB to a distance of 36 and 22 inches respectively, and also produce UVA and heat. In many home situations, they can double as a basking light and UVB source, eliminating the need for other bulbs.

 

Common Flat Rock Lizard

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Sputniktilt

Which Reptile UVB Bulb is Best?

Choosing a UVB source had once been easy – unfiltered sunlight was the only source (and it remains unmatched). By the time I began working at the Bronx Zoo, our choices had expanded to include “black-light bulbs” and Vita-Lights. Today a bit of forethought and research is needed before one goes bulb-shopping. Please post any questions or thoughts below.

Hi, my name is Frank Indiviglio. I’m a herpetologist, zoologist, and book author, recently retired from a career spent at several zoos, aquariums, and museums, including over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo.

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.

 

 

 

Further Reading

Zoo Med’s Standard UVB Bulbs: Test results

Chameleon Basking Time Affected by D3 Levels

 

 

Your First Pet Snake: A Checklist of Things to Consider

Honduran Milksnake

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Haplochromis

Snakes are almost mainstream pets these days, but I still see evidence that many people jump into snake ownership without fully considering all that is involved. In the course of my work as a reptile keeper at the Bronx Zoo, and now as a consultant for ThatFishPlace-ThatPetPlace, I’ve come-up with a list of important points that, if considered beforehand, will greatly improve life for both snake and snake owner. As always, please be sure to post any questions, or additional factors that you have found to be important, below. Please also see the articles linked below for my “best pet snake” recommendations.

 

Captive-Bred vs. Wild Caught: This is much easier to check today than in years past. Snakes born in captivity do not drain wild populations, are less likely to harbor parasites or diseases, and are generally easier to handle than are their wild relatives.

 

Handle-ability and other Pet Qualities: Snakes will not seek human companionship…as legendary snake expert Bill Haast put it “You can have a snake for 30 years, but leave the cage open, and it’s gone – and it won’t come back unless you have a mouse in your mouth”! Snakes definitely adjust to captivity, and some species accept handling better than others, but they should not be expected to be “friendly”.

 

The “It Doesn’t Do Anything” Factor: Ideally, the new snake owner will be interested in her or his pet for its own sake. But we also wish to see how it lives, what it does, and so on. Most snakes, especially well-fed pets, are about as active as the infamous “pet rock”!   If you want motion, consider a small species that actively forages for its food, and keep it in a large, naturalistic terrarium. A pair of Garter Snakes in a well-planted 55 gallon tank will provide you with infinitely more to observe than will a Burmese Python in a large zoo exhibit.

 

Western Garter Snake

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Steve Jurvetson

Costs of Owning A Snake: Your pet’s initial purchase price is but one part of the cost of snake ownership, which also includes electricity use, veterinary care (as expensive as dog/cat care), food, enclosure, and so on. With some planning, you can easily limit costs. A Garter Snake needs only a 20 gallon aquarium with (in winter) a low-wattage basking bulb, and a diet of minnows and earthworms…much less expensive than a 6 foot-long Boa Constrictor kept in a custom-made cage heated year-round with powerful bulbs and feeding upon pre-killed rats.

 

Veterinary Reptile Care: Reptile-experienced veterinarians are difficult to find in many regions. Trust me – it is a grave mistake to embark on snake ownership before locating a veterinarian, or to imagine that even the hardiest of species will not require medical care.  Please post below if you need assistance in finding a reptile-experienced veterinarian in your area.

 

Safety: All snakes, even the shyest and smallest, will bite when threatened, and they may react to scents, vibrations and other cues that we cannot perceive. Even minor bites should be treated by a doctor, to avoid infection, tetanus and other complications. Large constrictors have killed their owners and venomous species, which should never be kept, are regularly offered for sale. While easily managed with proper hygiene, Salmonella, which is generally carried by all reptiles, presents grave risks to certain people. Please see the article linked below and contact your doctor for advice.

 

Space: While snakes can make due with less space than many other creatures, you’ll see more of interest if your pet has ample room to move about. Be sure to research (feel free to post below) your snake’s ultimate size and typical growth rate. And please remember – zoos will not accept unwanted pets and, even if native, they cannot be released into the wild!

 

African House Snake

Uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by Purplegerbil

Time Commitment: Depending upon the species and size of your pet, its care can range from a short, more-or-less weekly job (Kenyan Sand Boa) to a major, near-daily chore (Indigo Snake). Long term care should also be considered – Corn Snakes and other popular pets regularly live into their teens and twenties, while Ball Pythons may exceed 30, 40 or even 50 years of age!

 

Diet: Not everyone (or everyone’s significant others!) can accept a pet that consumes dead rodents. Unfortunately, Smooth Green Snakes and other insect-eaters usually refuse crickets and other readily-available foods (canned silkworms may be a useful alternative). The fish-eating Water Garter and Ribbon Snakes are a good option for many folks.

Considering a snake purchase is an important decision. If you need more time to consider the aspects of owning a snake, print out the following abbreviated check list:

Captive-Bred vs. Wild Caught: Captives tend to be easier to give care
Handle-ability and other Pet Qualities: Don’t expect them to be “Friendly”
The “It Doesn’t Do Anything” Factor: Small active species vs. larger docile species
Cost: Initial Purchase Price vs. Price of Ownership
Veterinary Care: Do you have access to a local veterinarian with reptile experience?
Safety: Properly treating bites and Salmonella and avoiding dangerous and poisonous species
Space: Consider your pet’s ultimate size and growth rate
Time Commitment: Ranging from species that require weekly care to ones that require daily attention, along with respect to their lifespans that can reach as high as 50 years
Diet: Ability to handle or accept that many reptiles eat or require dead rodents

Hi, my name is Frank Indiviglio. I’m a herpetologist, zoologist, and book author, recently retired from a career spent at several zoos, aquariums, and museums, including over 20 years with the Bronx Zoo.

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.

 

Further Reading

The Five Best Pet Snakes

The Best Small Snake Pet

Preventing Salmonella Infections

 

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