THE MYSTERY OF MICROCLIMATE

During the hottest heat of summer, wild kleinmanni spend time in aestivation, the hot weather rest that prepares them for the moderate temperatures of winter and a greater activity level. There is some evidence that this period of aestivation is a necessary part of preparation for breeding, even in captivity. In the wild, this time might commonly be spent in the burrow of another creature. Such a place would be darker, cooler, and more moist than the Egyptian desert, even with daily marine layer fluctuations taken into account. The availability of such a moist microclimate has also recently been shown to play a role in preventing pyramiding in sulcata hatchlings.

Throughout the year, I provide my kleinmanni adults and hatchlings with multiple hide-pots, some of which are moist microclimates and some of which are left dryer. During the warm months of the year, they invariably choose the moist microclimates. During the winter months, it's more of a tossup which pot one will find tortoises hiding in.

A HIDE-POT STACKED TO THE EDGE
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Each of the humidified hide-pots is fitted with a thermometer and humidity gauge. Humidity is supplied by keeping the terra cotta pot constantly damp by rotating a series of wet sponges on a daily basis on its top. When humidity in the main habitat reads 30%, it will read 45% or more in the microclimate hide-pot. Further, the evaporation factor keeps the hide-pot cool: The interior of the humidified hide-pots is regularly 20ºF lower than the surrounding habitat.

The common wisdom of keepers in the West has been to keep this animal as dry as possible. While in general terms I agree with and follow this regimen, I find my animals teaching me more and more subtle things about their lives as desert dwellers, burrow borrowers, aestivating wonders. I believe their need for (and the incumbent need for keepers to provide for their use of) microclimate humidity spots in captive care regimens is probably greater than caresheets generally have provided for. This is clearly is their pattern in the wild, as with so many other desert habitat tortoises. This is a place where our captive care regimens need to catch-up with our developing understandings of the animal's wild ecology.

HIDE-POT INTERIOR
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Temperature/humidity probe at upper left helps the keeper know what the tortoise is experiencing

The shadier, cooler hidepot is the favorite retreat of the tortoises after their morning activity and feeding time. Rarely occupied by just one tortoise, as in the photo above, the animals seem to congregate together in pairs and triads. Sometimes the whole group will gather in a single heap, somewhat resembling a freeway accident involving nothing but Volkswagens.

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Among the many things to which kleinmanni are sensitive are the size and condition of their housing. It must be large enough to accommodate the number of animals involved. Small animals do not automatically equate to small quarters. The kleinmanni habitat must be kept scrupulously clean at all times, as must all tortoise accommodations. It must provide adequate space for basking, as well as places to hide and rest that are cooler and darker and away from the basking area. Sightline obstructions that break up the space visually also help the animals by creating more places to hide and hang out.

TEMPORARY SET-UP ARRANGEMENTS
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Adults will occupy the larger bin, hatchlings the small bin at the upper left

TEMPORARY, HOSPITAL, AND NURSERY HOUSING

The picture at right is of an empty set up not yet furnished, temporary quarters made of an under-bed storage box. In this type of habitat, young tortoises are prone to tipping at a certain size (smaller and larger is not a problem, but at about 2 in. in length it becomes an issue for about a year with the kleinmanni). The semi-opaque nature of these plastic containers gives the tortoises just enough visual access to the beyond that they tend to climb corners and push at walls in an effort to get out. This habitat really is only suitable as emergency, temporary quarters, or a hospital, quarantine, or nursery set up. The development of long-term, indoor habitat is discussed at the "Habitat Development" page.

HOUSING YOUR KLEINMANNI INSIDE

A key thing to remember in planning your kleinmanni housing is that these animals can be easily stressed, especially by overcrowding.

My recommendation for space is not less than eight square feet for a single pair of animals. An additional two to four square feet should be allowed for each additional animal added to the enclosure. Sightline breaks must be provided to allow the animals a sense of escape from one another. While it will be virtually impossible to keep an animal from "climbing the walls" from time to time, using materials that are completely opaque for sidewalls of the enclosure is an important step in reducing this problem.

The walls on the enclosure should be at least 8 in. high. I provide mine with a 4 in. interior lip to prevent climbouts. The depth of the enclosures sidewalls allows me to keep between 2 and 3 in. of substrate material in the pen, providing ample depth for the tortoises to dig small scrapes. These scrapes are a natural, instinctual "dig-to-hide" response from the genetic memory of their wild life. It allows them to bury the lower portion of their shell, that is, the most vulnerable portion, as they settle down from a day's activities.

Interior housing must be provided with adequate Ultraviolet lighting. This simulates (in extremely small and inadequate measure) some of the natural sunlight tortoises would receive were they being kept outdoors. At their best, the most powerful active UV Mercury vapor lamps provide levels of UV that approximate outdoor lighting in the shade in late morning. Of the lighting available, the "active UV" bulbs are by far away superior for stimulating activity levels of the tortoises, and providing basking heat and light in a single source. Because of light saturation conditions in the coastal desert from which the kleinmanni come, I've chosen to add additional UV lighting in the form of 5.0 and 8.0 UV florescent tubes at points in the enclosure away from the primary basking light. This provides an even spread of light and extra UV saturation throughout the enclosure.

Where there is no outdoor accommodation, calcium or calcium/D3 supplementation will be a necessary part of the captive care regimen, as no available UV lighting is adequate to the task of making up for lack of sunlight. During a late spring and autumn when the tortoises are outside a great deal, I use only dehydrate calcium without the extra vitamin D3. As winter weather makes it impractical to keep the tortoises outside, the calcium/D3 supplement provides better nutritional support. During aestivation, of course, the animals receive no supplementation at all.

The basking area is kept warm to a constant 95ºF during the May to September "dry season" to assist in stimulating aestivation, and a constant 85ºF from October to April in order to encourage maximum activity among the tortoises. Even at high summer, if a tortoise emerges, there is relief from the 95ºF basking area in many corners of the habitat. The temperature gradient from the basking area end to the opposite end of the enclosure is a full 15ºF.

The hidepots also provide refuge from the light and heat. During high summer the microclimate of the humid hidepots offers an almost 20ºF lower temperature than the surrounding pen. During the winter, when the tortoises more routinely choose the drier hidepots, they simply provide shade.

PORTABLE SUN PEN READY TO ROLL
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OUTDOOR GRAZING AND PEN ARRANGEMENTS

I feel strongly that wherever possible, arrangements should be made for kleinmanni to have access to outside quarters as much of the year as possible. This is not an option for many keepers, nor is it feasible in many parts of North America. Living in coastal Southern California, my kleinmanni live in the same kind of coastal desert as their wild ancestors. This makes it possible for them to have outdoor graze, fresh air, and natural UV by the bucket at least weekly most of the year.

PORTABLE SUN PEN, OPEN AND POPULATED WITH TORTS
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FEASTING AND GRAZING IN THE PROTECTED SUN PEN
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In the absence of a permanent outdoor habitat, my kleinmanni do well in their Portable Sun Pen. I can place it anywhere in fresh terrain that seems good. It is sturdy enough to be inaccessible to the common small predators in my area (an important consideration wherever you have small tortoises unsupervised). It has built-in shade panels which provide the tortoises access to shaded areas to which they can withdraw to prevent overheating.

Except for a short period of summer rest (see the section on aestivation at the "Captive Needs" page), I try to have the animals on the lawn two to four hours at a time, three to four times a week. This not only allows an excellent opportunity for the tortoises to take on nutrition in the form of fresh graze. The Bermuda grass and clover on which they forage provides the best fiber possible.

Outdoor time also provides an opportunity for the tortoises to absorb the UV light they need directly from the sun. This UV exposure helps convert sterols in the tortoise skin to vitamin D3, assisting the tortoise to fully utilize the calcium it absorbs in grazing and from other foodstuffs. And the quality of UV they gather from the sun is by far and away superior to anything human technology has ever provided in a UV light source.

Freegrazing on clover
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NEW THOUGHTS ON A KLEINMANNI TORTOISE TABLE

A new habitat is in development for the kleinmanni I keep that takes into account everything they have taught me about their own preferences for high humidity micro habitats. Other factors shaping this habitat include my own learning about the marine layer humidity cycle that affects kleinmanni throughout most of their range, and the role of the circannual cycle of winter rains and dry summers in this tortoises' aestivation instinct.

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"You can't trample infidels when you're a tortoise. I mean, all you could do is give 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.