Sunday, September 22, 2019

Creeping up on a Year in the Life with Tortoises

 My journey into the world of tortoise began nearly a year ago.

On the morning of September 26, 2018, our FedEx guy pulled into my driveway and carefully, nearly reverently, handed me a small box with "LIVE ANIMAL!" written on all sides, along with numerous this side up arrows. He asked what it was, and in a small and excited voice I answered, "a tortoise hatchling".

Darwin in the sink, getting his "just out of the box" soaking, 9/26/18

It was a bit nerve-wracking to take the tiny life, not bigger than a chicken's egg, and give him (I immediately felt that Darwin was a male, although neither of us will likely know for years to come, until he reaches maturity) his first bath, a soak in warm water.

It was the first of many firsts, but the soaks would be a near-daily thing for both of us for the next year (all hatchlings, most especially those hailing from the rainforests of the world, benefit from daily soakings to help them stay hydrated and to poop). Despite (or because of) my nervousness, I knew a lot about Redfoot Tortoises (Chelonoidis carbonaria) and had set up Darwin's enclosure ahead of time such that the heat and humidity was in the range that he needed, and had an abundance of food that he could, and would, eat. In the year since he arrived, we've gotten to know each other quite well, and he has thrived in this transplanted life in New Hampshire.

Darwin enjoying some outside time on a warm day as Fall approaches, 9/21/19
 In early August of 2019, I came across a posting on Craigslist for a Russian Tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii) and hesitated only long enough to ask my wife if I was crazy to want to rescue this tortoise and bring him into our lives (she assured me that I was crazy, but that it was fine to go fetch this Russian, then named Smirnoff). Smirnoff, now known as Chili, had lived in a ten-gallon grey plastic tote for the last 20 years, subsisting on lettuce and a heat lamp... it's amazing that he's in as good shape as he's in, given the givens.

Chili enjoying the outside
Since he came to live with us, I try to soak him a couple of times a week, he lives in a much bigger indoor enclosure, I try to get him outside to stretch his legs whenever it's warm enough, and he enjoys a much richer and more varied diet. He's still not fully used to his new life, but he hisses at me less than he initially did, which I assume is progress. 

Aretha eating her way through a hibiscus 
 At the end of August 2019, the FedEx guy came with another "LIVE ANIMAL!" box, this time with a Black Mountain Tortoise (Manouria Emys phayrei), a more exotic and demanding and specialized tortoise. Out of the box (literally), I had a feeling and named her Aretha (after the Queen of soul, the first anniversary of whose death we had recently marked).

Aretha hasn't been living with us for a month yet, but she seems to be thriving in her new home, and we're both learning more about each other day by day.

1972, Seychelles 5 Rupee
The name for a group of tortoises is a "creep", and I live with an interesting and varied creep:
  • Darwin's tribe is from a tropical rainforest in South America, he's omnivorous, brightly colored, and doesn't brumate (the reptile version of hibernation)
  • Chili's tribe hails from all over the place in that zone between Europe and Asia, that I like to think of as "the -stans", he's strictly a herbivore (mostly grasses and weeds), a mix of sandy colors that blends in nearly any environment, and they tend to sleep through the coldest (and sometimes the hottest/driest) months where they live (occasionally for as much of 9 months of the year in the wild)
  • Aretha's tribe lives in the mountain forests of Thailand, Burma/Myanmar, Bangladesh, and India, she's omnivorous (although with less fruit in her diet than Darwin), dark and low-slung compared to other tortoises, and also doesn't brumate.
As with any shift in lifestyle, with the introduction of the creep into my world, there's been a steep learning curve, lots of "Fire, Aim, Ready", numerous missteps, and lots of adjustments on the fly. 

Something I learned early: 
There are a lot of things that "everyone in the tortoise-keeping world knows" that simply aren't true... outdated information and practices passed down long enough that they became canon; people feel very strongly about the things they "know" to be true about keeping tortoises.

The fundamentals of living with tortoises have to do with establishing and maintaining the optimal range of heat and humidity and light, provide a varied and targetted diet, give them enough space and the occasional opportunity to explore outside if the weather permits.

I learned not to discuss or debate these things on Facebook, the rulers of those groups/fiefdoms shout down and ban anyone who disagrees or dares to offer alternative methods... the place I've found that offers great information and fosters discussion and debate and growth /expansion of the knowledge base of tortoise-keeping is Tortoise Forum

A reproduction of a "turtle", a coin from about 500bc, from the Greek island of Aegina
Without necessarily trying, or thinking about it (at least consciously), I've managed to bring a diverse creep together in our home... a trio of tortoises that give me lots to think about when planning for the presence, and present, and future. The different parts of the world that they come from, different climates, and the ways those things affect 

Darwin, the first to arrive, was selected for ease and interest. I liked that I didn't have to worry about hibernation, that he could eat so many things, that he wouldn't grow huge, and that he would be so attractive. I had no idea that he'd be so interesting to me, and interested in me... he both watches and tracks me in our office, moving from place to place in his enclosure to keep me in view; his habits in his indoor and outdoor enclosures show curiosity and a sense of adventure; he chooses to act in ways that confound my expectations of his behaviors/needs, expectations born of lengthy, deep, and broad research into his kind.

I invited Chili to join our family, not expecting much more than serving as a retirement home for an aging and ailing guy who'd be less able and interesting than Darwin; the tortoise I'm getting to know is a fascinating creature who is much more than the sum of his parts. His diet is simply greens, weeds, and the occasional flower; where I'd liked the complexity of prepping Darwin's food, I find I enjoy not having to think about Chili's meals day-to-day. Similarly, while I have tracked Darwin's growth (both carapace length and mass) closely since Chili is an adult I don't worry about it (but still do a monthly evaluation using a chart I developed for weekly use with the younger tortoises). While Chili seems less interested in me than does Darwin, he seems more interested in his environment; he constantly explores his enclosures, test-nibbles everything growing in the outdoors one, and is generally much more active and engaged than the Redfoot he lives near.

Aretha is still a hatchling, she is not old enough for me to really know her yet, but I can already feel a difference in her from the other two. Her species is perhaps the oldest remaining on the planet, and they have behaviors and physical features that set them apart from other, more modern, tortoises; her aquatic nature is one. She likes more moisture than most tortoises, and while she's spent even more time in the pool in her enclosure than I'd anticipated, the other day she buried/hid herself in a swamp I established in the enclosure (made from a roll-painting tray filled with mulch and water itself buried in the mulch of her enclosure) to an extent that surprised, and eventually scared, me; it took me literally hours to find her in the enclosure, so well and completely was she hidden. When she's older, my hope is to get a chance to breed her, with an eye towards returning some of her offspring to the wild at some future date, as her species is critically endangered in the wild.

1967, Tonga, 2 Seniti Coin
I'm not terrifically handy, but last week I built a new indoor enclosure for Chili, as a test run for possible future projects in tortoise-habitats.

the PVC sheet, cut to order
With the help of the good people at Home Depot (they did all the cutting), I transformed a single sheet of expanded PVC into the component elements of a 4X3X1.5 foot home for my Russian.

the view of Chili's new enclosure from my desk

It's a simple, open-topped, tortoise table, which Chili, as an adult member of a drier-climate species can tolerate more easily than could either Darwin or Aretha... I'm now thinking of building Darwin a 6X3X2 closed habitat this winter.

the tortoise's outdoor enclosure

The other thing I built (although again, it's so simple it doesn't really count as building anything) is the outside enclosure complex that the two older tortoises have enjoyed this summer (and that Aretha will be large/old/tough enough to make use of next summer). Using raised-garden corner pieces and Home Depot cut lumber, along with some shade-netting, they have a nice place to get some sun and fresh air on warm days.

Finding ways to foster their health and well-being while not exceeding my skills and willingness to try and build stuff is a useful exercise for me, and improves their overall lifestyle. It also provides an interesting "lab" in which to contemplate and explore the similarities and differences between and among these species.

A particularly interesting aspect of tortoise keeping, one which I'd purposely avoided initially, brumation, is rearing its head as the summer draws to a close. Chili, my Russian Tortoise, is a member of a species that enters periods of greatly reduced activity (hence the term brumation as opposed to calling it hibernation) in the various places they live, either in extremely hot and dry or extremely cold and dry times of the year. 

the fridge for Chili's brumation
It's not necessary to brumate your tortoise if you can keep the light and heat cycling at optimum levels for the species, but a number of the sources I read suggested that it can be better for the tortoise to brumate from an endocrinological and reproductive systems viewpoint. Since Chili seems in good health, I thought I'd try it this winter. 

I've got a fridge set up and cycling at its warmest setting, much of the space filled with water to provide thermal mass in order to keep the temperature as stable as is possible, and after a couple of undisturbed days, it's settled in to drifting gently between 37 and 39 degrees, which should be safe for Chili once I have adjusted the temp/light cycling in his enclosure, and gotten him through a two week fast (with numerous soakings to boost his hydration prior to the brumation). We'll likely do a 12-16 week brumation, starting in November.

1977, St. Helena, 25 pence piece
As my first year in the world of Tortoises comes to a close, I find myself excited, intellectually invigorated, surrounded by (and part of) a creep that I don't find creepy at all.

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