HATCHLING SHELTER AND MICROCLIMATE

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MOISTURE-SUPPLEMENTED HIDE POTS IN THE HATCHLING PEN

We are barely beginning to appreciate role of moist microhabitat during the development phases of arid species tortoises. Indeed, throughout their lives, tortoises in desert habitats employ burrows, scrapes, shade, and other moisture conserving strategies to protect the precious fluids in their bodies.

There are many ways of increasing the moisture available within habitats. Among the most effective is a simple sponge sitting in a basin of water within the habitat. This expands the evaporative surface of the available water, releasing extra moisture in the air and cooling it slightly. Kleinmanni hatchlings from the beginning instinctually know what shelter looks and feels like. They will crawl under a leaf, into a large open flower, or beneath the edge of a broken pot both to hide and to seek out shelter and moisture.

My hatchlings invariably search out their hide pots at the end of the day when the UV light goes out. In order to increase the available moisture in their otherwise very dry habitat, these pots are soaked daily in cool water. Upon return to the habitat, a sopping wet sponge is placed on top of the pot so that the terracotta may continue to draw moisture from it. In addition to the regular soaks and the available drinking water in the pen, this helps to assure a minimum of unnecessary fluid loss for these growing creatures.



DANGERS OF PYRAMIDING IN HATCHLINGS

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THIS HATCHLING SHOWS OBVIOUS PYRAMIDAL "FACETS" AT FOUR MONTHS OF AGE

The development of the bony structure that supports the shell of the tortoise hatchling is a major matter of concern and monitoring during the early months of life. Pyramiding is never a good thing, though tortoises do manage to survive moderate amounts of pyramidal development. Especially as hatchlings, adequate calcium to support growth, and adequate UV or supplemented Vitamin D3 to help metabolize and use this calcium, are critical to the long-term adult health of the tortoise.

The same factors that cause pyramiding -- protein overload, calcium deficiency, inadequate moisture and water intake, among others -- also have the potential to do long-term damage to a tortoises' other organ systems, especially the liver and kidneys.

The hatchling above came into my possession from a breeder when it was four months old. Already at that time it was showing signs of dietary stress in the form of these carapacial pyramids. Most probably it is the result of protein overload unsupported by adequate calcium and hydration. What causes this

Simply offering too much food of too soft a fiber content puts too much protein on a tortoises' plate. Especially for hatchlings, whom nature designed to live from the energy of their yolk sac for the first several months of life, too much food can be a major problem. Indeed, any food can be too much if the animal is designed to live on its own fat stores (the yolk sac) for the initial months.

The hatchling above will of course survive and even thrive. The diet of greens, weeds, and the additional fiber of orchard grass hay to which it has now adapted has brought the process of the pyramiding to a halt. Its further development should be quite normal.

Do I advocate the starvation of hatchlings? Of course not. But careful monitoring of dietary volume (keep the quantities small), quality, fiber, regular hydration and calcium intake are critical to developing a smoothly formed shell like that of the hatchling in the photo below, which has been in my care from six weeks of age. Such shell growth is some small assurance that one's dietary regimen is doing no damage to an animal's developing systems.

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ALSO FOUR MONTHS OF AGE, THIS TORTOISE HAS DEVELOPED A BETTER SHELL STRUCTURE

The Egyptian Tortoise: its natural history, its captive care, its beauty, its lore. . .
KLEINMANNI, The Next Generation: caring for hatchlings
kleinmanni home | golden beauties | desert life | climate's role | captive needs | unique diet | Captive Habitat 1: basics | Captive Habitat 2: habitat development | Breeding | hatchling care | when something goes wrong | natural and un-natural history | All in the family | captive behaviors | tortoise links | references

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THE YOLK SAC SCAR

Kleinmanni hatchlings weigh in at about 6 g at birth. Emerging from their tiny shells almost folded in half, they enter the world with no second thought from their parents or other siblings. In the wild, it is likely that very few survive. Born into a world unprepared to make them welcome, they are designed like all tortoise hatchlings to live off the energy of their yolk sac for the first several months of life. Often emerging in the late summer and early autumn, their initial growing up coincides with the emergence of fresh browse that appears in the wake of the early winter rains.

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BABY TORTOISE MUNCHES HAY

In captivity, we interrupt the cycle and provide a welcome for the emerging hatchlings unlike any they would receive in nature. No matter that nature has provided for much of their early nourishment by placing them in eggs and giving them yolks. This page outlines the hatchling care regimen I follow when the neonates enter my collection.

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NURSERY CARE DURING THE FIRST SIX MONTHS OF LIFE

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SUMMERTIME NURSERY ARRANGEMENT

During the first six months of life, I set up hatchlings in a moderately sized container, lined with paper towels. Not exactly the sort of material they would encounter in nature, paper toweling nevertheless provides an easy way to keep their substrate clean. I have tried placing kleinmanni hatchlings on adults substrate from the get go, and found that they have trouble with locomotion until their little muscles develop somewhat.

In the matter of keeping paper toweling moist enough to prevent respiratory ad other problems, they very inventively do it themselves! I provide 24/7 water access for my hatchlings in a small very shallow dish (less than 1/8 in. deep cleaned and filled several times daily). NOTE: This is always placed in the center of the nursery habitat in order to double insure against the possibility of a tip in the water tray. From the beginning they learn to drink from the dish; during the first four to six months I do daily soaks as well. This keeps their individual hydration well up. Also, transits in and out of the water dish by the hatchlings themselves keep the paper toweling well dampened and yet not sopping wet in a six inch radius around the water dish . In addition, their principal hide spaces (very small terracotta pots which they learn early function nicely as burrows) are kept moist by rotating very wet sponges on their tops. The moisture conveyed to the terracotta by the sponge, as well as the moisture conveyed by the damp sponge directly to the atmosphere of the hatchling habitat, to a wonderful job of keeping humidity in the nursery habitat above 40%.

A final note on the paper toweling. . . Much as they love their little hide pots, kleinmanni hatchlings love it even more when they can find the edge of the paper towels and slip in between two layers. I use a minimum of four layers when I refresh the substrate. This makes both for good moisture retention when they are dampened by tiny, wet little tortoise feet but keeps things from ever getting too soggy.

For UV, I provide the smallest tortoises with an ESU coil fluorescent lamp for the first three months to prevent overheating. These lamps do NOT provide nearly the levels of UV that are needed for long term health, so hatchlings also get several hours a week in the sun. During this time frame the also get supplemental heat from a ceramic heat emitter. Moving hatchlings by six months of age into a habitat with active UV light is an important step.

HATCHLING DIET AND HYDRATION

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THIS HATCHLING GROUP DIGS INTO ITS SALAD OF MIXED DARK GREENS AND FIBER

The hatchlings' diet is much like that of the sub-adult kleinmanni. It consists in dark green leafy vegetables in moderation, mixed with ground orchard grass hay for fiber and appropriate levels of calcium and vitamin supplementation. During a hatchling's first year, I continue to provide dark leafy greens and succulent weeds daily through the winter, as this would be their active foraging season in the wild. Later in the spring, I will cut this back to the same sort of feeding schedule that the sub-adults live on (every other day, max four times a week) and provide only the orchard grass hay on alternate days.

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HATCHLINGS SEARCH OUT BITS OF HAY FOR FIBER LONG AFTER THE DAY'S SALAD HAS BEEN REMOVED

Fiber intake is one of the things I watch most carefully in hatchlings. If I take care not to overfeed them softer greens, they will come out in the mornings, and forage around in a pile of orchard grass hay grindings. I find this most encouraging. For kleinmanni hatchlings to develop well and be of good weight this is an essential part of their diet.

During the first six months of life, an opportunity to soak in fresh water is provided every day. The hatchlings sometimes expel urates (the specialized kidney output of tortoises) and almost always defecate while soaking. In addition to their daily soaks, a very shallow water dish is provided and refreshed twice daily. Shallow enough for the smallest of hatchlings to enter and walk away from easily, they quickly learn to take in water from this source.

REGIMEN CHANGES DURING MONTHS SEVEN TO EIGHTEEN

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AS THEY GROW THEY GET A NEW SUBSTRATE

Between four and six months of age hatchlings are moved from a paper towel substrate to the same mix of layered earth/sand topped with ground oyster shell on which the adults live. The decision to make this move is based on a number of factors. Hatchling size, basic coordination of limbs, evidence of a strong appetite, evidence from fecals that digestion is working well, plus a fairly high and routine activity level are all considered. If the hatchling shows any evidence of developing more slowly than its contemporaries, it may be "retained" on the easier to negotiate substrate until it shows more signs of readiness to move.

At about the same time, or as soon as their first winter is over, the dietary schedule and pattern shifts. The schedule moves from daily to four times weekly. The amount fed is lessened as well to more exactly match the per feeding appetite of the hatchlings. If hatchlings have shown evidence of drinking on a regular basis from their water tray, soaks at this time are moved from a daily affair to twice weekly.



HATCHLING SAFETY:
PREVENTING AND PROVIDING FOR TIPPED TORTOISES

Turning briefly to the topic of hatchling safety. . . I find that until they are about a year old, kleinmanni hatchlings have neither the size, nor the strength, nor a sufficiently high center of gravity to tip themselves over from the side or corner of the enclosure. However, kleinmanni (like most tortoises young and old) practice the locomotive principles of "over, not around." One does sometimes find that in the process of trying to climb a moving object of its own species, a hatchling will tip.

The converse principle of locomotion for these animals is "under, not around." The instinct for scrape digging under the edge of things is inborn. Their inclination to try and dig underneath one another means that they sometimes tip each other that way.

Example: If not sleeping in a hide pot, it is quite common for kleinmanni hatchlings to snuggle into a corner as into any tight space to bed down for the night. Hatchling No. 2 comes along and decides that the best protection/most secure space will be under the already sleeping hatchling number one. I have some mornings found piles of as many as six hatchlings looking like a freeway wreck of Volkswagen Beetles.

Sometimes in the process of either getting under or getting out from under, tips occur. Bottom-Line: it just needs more vigilance to keep track of hatchlings. Hatchlings have the good fortune of being sufficiently cute that anyone going by looks in on them.

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KEY PRINCIPLES FOR HATCHLING HABITATS

1. Stablizing light and heat soources so that burns do not occur is critical.

2. Moving them to more challenging adult substrate as soon as possible puts them in a situation where they can right themselves easily if need be.

3. Providing adequate clearance around all habitat furnishings so they can't get into tight, dangerous spots and positions is equally important.

IMPORTANT HATCHLING LINKS ON THE WORLD WIDE WEB. . .

Darrell Senneke's excellent "Hatchling Haven" site provides a wealth of information about the hatchlings of a great range of tortoise species. . . Also available at this site are working plans and how-to and how-to instructions for building an active microclimate moisture generator that is an alternative to my "pot and sponge" method.

A.C. Highfield's article on "Rearing Healthy Hatchlings" at the Tortoise Trust website is a useful starting place for developing one's captive care regimen for hatchling tortoises. . .

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"You can't trample infidelswhen you're a tortoise.I mean, all you could do isgive them a meaningful look."

-- Terry Pratchett, "Small Gods"

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The Egyptian Tortoise: its natural history, its captive care, its beauty, its lore. . .
Fred L. Erwin, Jr., 2004 - 2005 C.E.