Friday, December 20, 2019

Q&A with Modern Tortoise

Tortoises are fantastic!

Now that's out of the way let's talk... I've been keeping a variety of tortoises for a while now, and while I'm certainly no expert, I feel that I have a firm grasp on some of the basics.

That being the case, I thought I'd take this opportunity to answer some questions that friends of mine have asked, along with a few that they didn't... caring for tortoises (in both senses of the word 'caring') is relatively easy given a basic understanding of their needs, and once you can move past some petstore-dogma lingering from a bygone era of keeping these wonderful beasts in much the same way you'd keep a jade plant.

How do you keep a tortoise so they don't die?

The biggest struggles most tortoises face in captivity are in regards to temperature and humidity. As a general rule, being cold-blooded, they have trouble digesting (and doing lots of other stuff) when their internal temperature is below 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Also as a general rule, tortoises are kept much too dry, especially younger and/or forest tortoises.

A good rule of thumb, and place to start, is in keeping your tortoise at 80°F and 80% humidity... this is most easily accomplished in a closed system, like a big aquarium or cabinet with a lid on it to keep in the heat and humidity.

If you can reach and maintain those levels consistently, then you can fine-tune the enclosure's conditions to more exactly meet the needs of your tortoise... my Redfoot seems to do best with a range from 78-86°F, humidity in the 90% range and a 12:12 light schedule with a place to bask and take in some UV rays; my Black Mountain Tortoise prefers 68-82°F and near 100% humidity (she spends a lot of the day in an underpot filled with water) and lower intensity lighting than the Redfoot; the Hingeback does well from 65-80°F with humidity in the 90s and even less light than the Mountain Tortoise; the Russian can handle anything from 60-100°F and does fine with lower humidity (largely because he's much older than the others, but also because he's a type of tortoise that just needs less humidity).

In addition, a weekly (or more often for hatchlings) soaking is beneficial for all tortoises, even adults... the water should be warm and up to just above the line where the bottom of their shell (plastron) shifts to the top of their shell (carapace). With my severely dehydrated Hingeback, I soaked him several times a week for hours at a time (to ensure that the water stayed warm, I put the container inside his enclosure).

Their UV needs aren't much, but they do need some to help them metabolize nutrients (in much the same way that many other animals, including people, do)... if you can get them outside in the sun for a few hours each week, you'll have met their needs. If you can't, or can't year-round, you can supplement it with a bulb (which is what I do.

How do you know what to feed them? 

Tortoises fall into two broad categories: grassland and forest tortoises. Grassland tortoises are nearly entirely herbivorous, while forest tortoises are more omnivorous.

This page with some basic caresheets for the more common species is a good place to start.

Regardless of which type of tortoise you get, greens, weeds, and flowers will be a big part of their diet. Their diets, especially the grassland tortoises, should be high in fiber and low in protein. Fruit is a part of some tortoises' diets, but too much can make them sick as their guts use fermentation to process nutrients and too much sugar can throw off the fermentation process.

Variety should be your goal in feeding your tortoise. I alternate foods by days so that they cannot simply pick out their favorites every day and ignore the stuff they don't like. I feed my tortoise slightly more than they can eat every day... they eat most shortly after I put the food down, then pick at it throughout the day (and possibly night).

My Russian is a no-kidding-around grassland tortoise, so he gets no fruit, no animal protein, and only occasional veggies (I give him pumpkin or butternut squash from time to time); his favorite food on earth is a hibiscus flower. The rest of my creep is made up of forest tortoises, who enjoy a bit of everything, with variety and balance being the focus across the week's menu.

Can they be microchipped like a dog? 

Yes, they can. Last winter Ben and I went to a friend's "farm", where he had dozens (maybe hundreds) of giant Galapagos and Aldabra tortoises... we spent hours exploring his ranch and feeding/meeting the tortoises. At the end of our visit, we spent an hour or so helping him take blood samples and inject micro-chips into a group of the tortoises.

Do they have distinct personalities?

My experience has been that tortoises are quite intelligent and have vastly different personalities, once they get to know you.

When a tortoise comes to live with me, they generally hide or pout for a month or so; I think this is from upset at the move and change in their surroundings and schedules and environment (they're not crazy about change).

My Redfoot likes to explore his enclosure, move stuff around, and watch me write. When I put his food down, he rushes over to sniff and pick out any treasures, then retires to bask for a while and return periodically. In the warm months when he goes outside, he walks the perimeter once, then finds a corner to wedge himself into and takes a nap.

The Russian basks first thing, as soon as the light comes on, then watches me for signs of a food delivery. Unlike the others, he maintains eye-contact while eating, and always has an eye on me. when he gets outside, he likes trying to escape (he's a digger) and after exploring the space thoroughly will cut a flap of sod and scoot under it to finish the day.

My Black Mountain Tortoise loves to soak and hide. A number of times, I've been completely unable to find her in her enclosure, and just have to wait until the next meal, when she emerges from the floor and comes over to power through a meal. She seems the least interested in me of all of my tortoises, and I often get the feeling that I work for her (and she's not fully impressed with the job I'm doing).

The Hingeback is the newest and came to me, so we're still getting to know each other. He likes to watch me write, but it's normally from undercover (being a deep forest type, his enclosure is filled with branches and leaves and hides)... I often just see a glint from his big beautiful eyes from within the depths of the enclosure.

How big will they get? 

The Russian is full-sized at 6 inches across. The Hingeback is next, he'll probably top out around 9-10 inches long. The Redfoot could grow to 18-20 inches, although I bet he'll top out at 16 or so. The Black Mountain Tortoise has the potential to be the largest in my creep eventually, and her species is the fourth largest on Earth (after Galapagos, Aldabra, and Sulcata), at around 24 inches.

How long do they live? 

Tortoises can live for a long time. captivity can either be wearing or a boon to their longevity. The Russian is already at least 20 years old and may live for another 20-50. The others should all outlive me (unless things go unexpectedly right for me and/or wrong for them), they could certainly all live 50-100 years.

I have made provisions in my will and had a talk with my son (including resources/people for him to call on if he decides he doesn't want to take them on).

Can you leash train them? 

I've seen people who do, but I'm not even crazy about walking dogs on leashes, so I'm not likely to do it with my tortoises. If that's your thing, I'm sure you could, they're smart enough.

Do they enjoy digging? Hiding in sand or mud? 

The Russian and the Black Mountain Tortoise love digging, the former for escape and exploration, the latter for hiding. The other two will, and have, dug, but they mostly seem to stay on the surface, or just under some covering branches and leaves rather than digging down.

What do your dogs think of them? 

The dogs think they're funny-smelling rocks. I don't let them check out the tortoises really close up because it might activate some latent prey-drive, and I don't want anyone injured.

Can they be salmonella carriers like some other reptiles? 

I imagine so. I wash my hands before and after I handle them and in caring for their food and enclosures... before to protect them from me after to protect me from them.

To date, because they're all relatively new, and from different parts of the world (with presumably differing gut-biota), I don't let them play together, soak together, eat together, live together. Besides the specter of cross-infection, there could also be aggression issues... tortoises are predominantly solitary creatures.

Can you train them to do tricks? 

I expect so, but I don't think I will. Again, I don't really do this with my dogs, beyond some functional ones like "sit" and "come"... I think I've already been habituating them to behave as I want them to when I'm handling them, which I guess could be classified as a trick.

Do the "spots" on their legs have a specific purpose? 

The spots on their legs are scales. The scales are mostly defensive, both to make predation harder and to prevent water loss. They probably also play a role in courtship displays.

I'd consider "rescuing" a tortoise in need but in the tiny house, I can't manage a large tortoise. Is there a tortoise that could be happy in a 2'x 3' area except during playtime?

I would recommend a Russian Tortoise. If you look at the caresheet for them, you'll see they're pretty hardy and easy to take care of.

My Russian, Chili, is a rescue who lived for 20 years in a 10-gallon Tupperware tote, under a spotlight, on wood-shavings, eating lettuce... sub-optimal conditions to be sure, but he survived.

He now lives in a 3X4 table I made from a single sheet of PVC-plywood (from Home Depot), but that's only a part-time home... in warm months he's outside most days, and he'll brumate (the reptile version of hibernation) in a fridge from January to mid-March or April when he can hopefully begin going back outside again.

He's got a great personality, and he's a vegetarian, which makes food prep and waste cleanup a less odious set of chores.

If you look on Craigslist or FB marketplace, you can ordinarily find tortoises in need of "rehoming"... even if you cannot provide them the perfect home, you can certainly do better than their last one.

Facebook seems like a fun place to post pictures, but not a great place for solid information about tortoise husbandry; is there such a place?

I love sharing pictures and articles about tortoises on FB, and there are a number of groups that I love for exactly that purpose... that being said, there is a lot of faulty, old, misleading, and just odd information about tortoise husbandry online, along with some very dogmatic (occasionally aggressive) people.

Through some trial and error, I managed to find what I feel is a very useful, friendly, and unbiased source of information, help, and recommendations at Tortoise Forum.

If this Q&A has made you more curious or interested than bored, then you could certainly get in touch with me to ask me more questions, but you'll probably have even better luck over at  Tortoise Forum.

Thanks for the questions, and for reading.