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Emergency Incubation Techniques for Temperate Species - Darrell Senneke


Keepers of turtles and people that live near lakes and rivers are often confronted with eggs from native species of turtles that either nest under their care or nest on their property.  Usually these people don't have access to any sort of incubator yet still wish to hatch out the eggs.

Probably the easiest thing to do in this situation is to cover the nest with a poultry mesh dome and let nature take her course.  This will protect the eggs from ever present raccoons and contain the young after hatching for placement in their habitat or, in the case of a wild mother, release into the area suited for them.

When the above is not possible and you do not have access to an incubator I have found the following procedure to work well. This is adapted from the method that Felice Rood and Paula Elis. Morris (personal communication) use and it has worked for me and others as well. Please note - with tropical turtle or tortoise eggs the temperature might not be warm enough using this method. I have used this with both box turtle and wood turtle eggs at times when my incubator was otherwise occupied.

Remove the eggs and place them in a margarine tub half full of vermiculite (some people use sphagnum moss). The coarse or medium grade vermiculite seems to work better than the very fine grade which can cake and tends to dry out the eggs. The vermiculite should be dampened, I usually moisten it with an amount of water about equal to its WEIGHT. I then place the eggs in it buried half way. Do not turn the eggs or otherwise rotate them once you place them in there and try to put them in the same position that you found them.  Cover them with a piece of moistened and then wrung out paper towel. Then replace the cover on the tub and let it sit in a warm (not hot) spot - a shelf in the garage or a non air-conditioned kitchen works well. It is important that you chose a quiet spot away from vibration. You should notice just a touch of condensation on the inside of the cover if you have the moisture amount correct. Remove the cover for a minute or two every couple days for air exchange. Very lightly mist the paper towel if it appears to have dried out.  As an option the top can be placed on loosely or air holes can be put in it to facilitate air exchange. If this is done careful attention will need to be paid to the moisture content of the substrate,

Warm, room temperature, 76 - 85 degrees F (24.5 - 39.5 degrees C) works fine. After anywhere from 50 to 90 days they should hatch. Upon doing your air exchanges if you notice any of them starting to collapse a bit add just a touch of water. If any turn dark and moldy - or totally collapse - usually that means they are infertile or have died.

Tess Cook uses a similar incubation procedure except she positions an incandescent light bulb to keep the temperature a steady 84 degrees F (29 degrees C). She uses a digital thermometer with a probe to determine the distance of the light from the container to maintain that temperature (personal communication). Please note: if you attempt this it is important that the ambient temperature be steady and that you also determine the distance required for the bulb prior to putting eggs in the container. Allow at least 24 hours to make certain the temperature is stable before adding the eggs to the container.

Another option is to use a Hovabator, which is a low cost chicken egg incubator. I would suggest if you purchase one of these to get the still air version as the version which incorporates a fan can dehydrate the eggs.  The following is the procedure used by George Patton and Martha Ann Messinger when they must incubate in their Terrapene carolina triunguis research (personal communication).

Using a small Rubbermaid container with lid, weigh the vermiculite, then add an equal weight of water. Example: If vermiculite weight is 31.4 grams, weight of water is also 31.4 grams. The eggs are placed in the container in the vermiculite so the top of the eggs are not covered. The top is then replaced tightly on the Rubbermaid container. The Rubbermaid container is then placed inside a Hovabator (incubator). The temperature is stabilized inside the incubator at 85 degrees F (29 degrees C) prior to addition of the eggs. The top is removed from the Rubbermaid container for about 5 minutes every 1-2 days for air exchange. Once again an option is to place the top slightly off center or poke air exchange holes in it with extra attention paid to moisture content of substrate.

In George and Martha Ann's method all nests are laid outside and brought inside and put in the incubator only when it turns cold.  Last Year the last nest of the season was laid on September 8th. 3 eggs pipped in incubator at 73 days. The 4th egg pipped at 76 days.

Neonates are not removed from the incubator until they have completely crawled out of the eggshell. At that time they begin to bury themselves in the vermiculite. This insures that enough of their yolk sacs have been absorbed for safety in picking them up.



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