Against all odds, a story of a smashed egg and the spirit of survival

Cybertort

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Dear all, a long time member here but first time posting, I hope to share a story about my tortoise. Best, Albert.

Against all odds, a story of a smashed egg and the spirit of survival

Prologue


My 2 Indian Star tortoises are about 30 years old, one male and one female, the female had been laying eggs for a number of years but never have I had any viable/fertilized eggs (I would still place the eggs in the incubator regardless, if I catch her laying eggs, for at least half a year and candle the eggs to make sure they are not viable at the end of incubating period). A batch of seven eggs were laid on January 13th 2022 and I, like clockwork, kept them in my Rcom Reptile 60 Max incubator with vermiculite and a dish of water inside (for around 80% humidity) with temperature set at 30.5 degrees Celsius (87 degrees Fahrenheit). Life went on as usual and I had stopped topping up the water dish after around 3 months thinking it was another unfertilized batch but still kept the eggs in the incubator (I live in a tropical climate and humidity stays at around 70% even without the water dish).

Fig 1: Female tortoise laying eggs in Janurary
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Missed Opportunity

Another batch of seven eggs were laid on May 20th 2022. I saw the female digging a test hole the day before and I just so happened to see her laying eggs in the garden right after I got back from work. I took the eggs, rinsed off the soil with tap water and took them to the incubator as per routine to change out the old eggs and put in the new ones. This time when candling the January batch of eggs, I could see some blood vessels (a first!) but a very small embryo. At 127 days (seeing that some online literatures put incubation period at around 90-120 days) and out of my own inexperience, I thought the eggs had already gone pass due date and embryos stopped developing.

Fig 2: Candling the January batch eggs
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I cracked opened one egg out of curiosity and as shown below, embryo was still in the early stages, could have stopped developing as the yolk and albumen was already quite watery. Disappointing for sure, but I was surprised that the egg was even fertilized after having no success all these years. As I cracked opened the second and third egg, the embryos were formed much better, and you could actually see the form of a baby tortoise.

Fig 3: Egg #1
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A Fatal Mistake

As I was studying the embryo, feeling a sense of loss, a string of questions crossed my mind, thinking what had I done wrong? What settings I could have changed on the incubator? Was the temperature/humidity sensor off? Was the humidity too low? Why did the embryo stopped developing? What came next made my heart sank to my stomach…

I saw one of the embryos twitch its tiny arm…and then so did the other embryo…

Fig 4: Egg #2
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Fig 5: Egg #3
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I was stunned beyond words and when the initial shock faded rapidly into the realization that I had just robbed two baby tortoises of their chance in life, the resulting sense of dread was quite overwhelming.

I did not have time to dwell on this fatal mistake. The 4 remaining eggs went straight back into the incubator and I had to help the two embryos that were still developing. I had read over the years in this very forum about other member’s cracked egg and how they were successful in hatching with the cracks patched up. However, I have never seen such a severe case with now half the shell missing and the embryo at such an early developmental stage.

First thing I thought about was bacteria/fungus infection and drying out of the yolk/albumen. I placed each egg in a small bowl (to prevent cross contamination) lined with wet paper towel and covered it with cellophane wrap with some holes for ventilation before putting them back into the incubator. All I could do was prepare for the worst.

Fig 6: Egg#2 (on top), Egg #3 (below)
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The following day, I could not see any movements by the two embryos but there was still a faint pulse in the tiny blood vessels. I did not dare, but was hope something I could ask for?

Try as I may to stay positive, but hope was not to be had on the 3rd day. One of the two embryos passed (Egg#2). It clung on to life as best as it could, but blood loss was likely too severe when the egg was cracked (it looked like a large blood vessel was ruptured). I could see some of the blood vessels receded and no pulse could be seen anymore. I left it in the incubator just in case but now only one remained (Egg#3) and insurmountable odds seemed to be stacked against it.

The Precarious Road Ahead

Each day passed with extreme uncertainty. I did not want to disturb the embryo nor contaminate it’s make shift environment, hence limited myself to checking in on it once a day to keep a record. I could still see a pulse in the blood vessels as well as an occasional twitch of the arms and its head over the next few days.

On the fifth day I could see the albumen starting to dry, something which I had feared (looked like a tear in the albumen membrane where it started to dry, the circular shape at top of the membrane can be seen shrinking). I contacted my vet and there was not much more he could do either except to advise me to keep the environment as sterile as possible. However, he did give me a bottle of sterile water (normally used as a diluent for injection) to try and drop a few drops over the albumen each day to slow down the drying.

Fig 7: Day 1-9 (after egg cracking)
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About 0.15ml of water was dropped on the albumen twice a day, I could probably have dripped more but anymore and the water would have run off the side of the egg and the 5ml bottle was all I had. Even with the added water, you can see the tear drying up and appear to seal itself. Despite the apparent drying of albumen, all seemed to stabilize once the tear was closed up by itself on day 15th.

Fig 8: Day 10-18 (after egg cracking)
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Fig 9: Day 19-27 (after egg cracking)
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The embryo was developing at a good pace but around day 28th, I noticed slowly but surely a layer of growth had been forming over the surface of the albumen. The layer of bacteria was not sticking on to the albumen as it would usually float on top of the water that I drip over. I had hoped the bacteria would be benign but it was getting thicker and I feared it would eventually overwhelm the embryo. I took a cotton bud and slowly rolled over the bacteria layer to pick it up and it look like cheese once I gathered it. The embryo could feel the contact and struggled as I was removing the bacterial layer. I really didn’t want to aggravate it too much and did the best I could at getting rid of the more obvious growth.

Over the next 5 days (until day 33rd), it was again a harrowing experience. Whether it was due to my aggravations when removing the bacteria or the tortoise was preparing hatch, I do not know. Two major blood vessels started to recede (one located at the top of the shell, the other at the bottom), which was quite reminiscent of the second cracked egg that passed when it started to weaken. The tortoise wasn’t increasing in size as much as previous week and with two large blood vessels receded, I feared for the worse again. To make matters even worse, the growth of bacteria started coming back and it was quite rapid. On day 36th, the layer of growth had covered almost the whole surface again. This time, I had managed to order online in advance online a few boxes of sterile, non-pyrogenic (just means it does not cause fever) water used for injection. Rather than making contact with a cotton bud again, I warm up the sterile disposal bottle of water (placed it in a bowl of warm water for 15mins at around 34 celcius/93 Fahrenheit) and used a syringe to gently squirt the layer of bacteria away while keeping the albumen wet. Whether things would go downhill from here on, I could only keep my fingers crossed.

Fig 10: Day 28-36 (after egg cracking)
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Light of Day

The operation worked! Things remained status quo for the next few days and without the layer of bacteria growth. Day 40th, it happened. On this fine morning, the tortoise broke through the membrane and it’s head and arm was sticking out! The membrane continued to slowly recede over the next 36 hours and on the evening of the 41st day, it finally opened its eyes to the world.

Over the next 48 hours (day 43rd), the hatchling continued to turned in its shell and I let it absorb its yolk sac without disturbing it much. It showed a strong zest for life and kept wanting to crawl out of its shell despite still having a large yolk sac on its belly. I would find it half asleep and when it saw me doing my daily rounds to check up on it, it would start trying to crawl (or maybe it was trying to run away from me). Against all odds, there appears to be light at end of the tunnel.

Fig 11: Day 37-44 (after egg cracking)
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Darkness of night

Day 44th, 3 days after breaking through the membrane, I notice a slight smell of the discarded membrane (not rotten egg smell but more stale, like it’s “home in a bowl” of wet tissue and cotton when I change it weekly) and since the tortoise had been sitting in it for the past 3 days I thought it might be better to lift it out of the pool of bloody water (some blood from pipping and from the sterile water that I added) and membrane to prevent any bacteria from festering.

It’s shell felt very soft from holding it, quite malleable at the edges in fact. From this research paper (https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/jpsa/51/3/51_0130043/_pdf ) and news article (https://www.cnbc.com/amp/2016/06/08/did-japanese-students-really-hatch-a-chick-outside-a-shell.html ) where a chick was grown without its shell, it seems embryos do take calcium from the egg shell. And with my tortoise missing half its eggshell to begin with and hatching prematurely, it really did take a toll on its development.

I rinsed the yolk sac off with some sterile water and placed the hatchling back to its bowl in the incubator with the wet paper towel and a circle of wet cotton balls to prop it up without too much pressure on the yolk sac. It was still trying to crawl away before I turned off the lights and retired for the evening.

Fig 12: Bloody water and discarded membrane rinsed off
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On the morning of the 45th day, I went to check on the hatchling tortoise. What I saw when I lifted the incubator lid was the cumulation of my fears over this past one and a half month. Over the course of the night, for reasons I will probably never understand, the worse had happened. Life had faded from the baby tortoise, it didn’t perk up or crawl when it saw me, just lifeless…

I don’t know what I had expected, perhaps seeing it grow out into a hatchling was already more than what could be asked for. Seeing it so active and full of life the day before makes it even more surreal and just shows how fragile it still was. I will never know but maybe, despite being in the incubator, placing it on wet cotton balls (that evaporated throughout the night and without the insulation from the shell) just had that slight temperature drop which slowed its heart rate enough to fade away. Likely, even letting the hatchling sit for a day or two more would have given it a better chance at life. This will be a question left unanswered until the end of time and I sure hope I do not have to face it again. (It’s total incubating time in the end was 168 days until it opened its eyes. And to better care for eggs in the future, I have purchase Egg Buddy mk2 by Avitronix, that lets you monitor the heart rate of a developing egg)

Fig 13: Day of passing
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Never Loose Hope

I apologize for not being able to share a better ending after all we went through (if you had continued reading till now). However, even though the story could have turned out better, I find that having that embryo reach a stage where it saw life, however brief, did give me some solace.

I hope this will at least provide something for future keepers to not loose hope if you encounter such an accident with your tortoises’ eggs, be it a small crack or something more serious. My story could have turned out on the bright side of the rainbow, and I do hope it will turn out that way for you too. As a final parting gift, even though the end was tragic, that tortoise’s spirit of survival against all odds is something I (and perhaps we) can all look up to.

Have a good day.

On a brighter note, three of the remaining eggs are still incubating and have a heart beat.

Fig 14: Egg Buddy mk2, Digital Egg Monitor (showing heart rate of egg)
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Equipment/supplies used:
⁃ Rcom Reptile 60 Max incubator
⁃ Egg Buddy mk2 by Avitronix - digital egg monitor
⁃ B Braun sterile non-pyrogenic water for injection 10ml disposal bottles


Sincerely,
Albert
 

Shelled

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Fascinating story, but too bad there was no happy ending, despite all your efforts.
The development goes quite quickly, do you think the eggs went into a diapause before they started developing? Do Indian start tortoise eggs usually do that?
 

Jan A

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Fascinating story, but too bad there was no happy ending, despite all your efforts.
The development goes quite quickly, do you think the eggs went into a diapause before they started developing? Do Indian start tortoise eggs usually do that?
True dat, and a very interesting, detailed observation from which many can learn. Thank you for posting, Cybertort!
 

Cybertort

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Fascinating story, but too bad there was no happy ending, despite all your efforts.
The development goes quite quickly, do you think the eggs went into a diapause before they started developing? Do Indian start tortoise eggs usually do that?
I have heard of diapause for Burmese Star tortoise but not for Indian Star tortoise, more experienced members please correct me if I'm wrong. Also the eggs had been kept in the incubator all along at 30.5 Celsius/87 Fahrenheit so does not seem to have cooled to diapause?

I should also mention that once the egg was cracked and place back into the incubator, I upped the temperature to 31 Celsius/88 Fahrenheit, in hopes that it will develop a little faster to race against the adverse condition it was facing.
 

wellington

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Wow, I had such hope that at least the one was doing fine. Boy, you sure did try though. It's amazing it even grew at all.
Just and FYI. A lot of us don't count eggs as bad until they have gone rotten. It's amazing how just one little thing being off can delay the egg from developing.
Good luck with the next clutch.
 

Cybertort

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I was really hoping for a happy ending :( but thank you for sharing this story with such details! Definitely learnt something new, and appreciate life even more.
It was made especially hard since I’m a first time godparent to my tortoises’ offspring, but it does make me appreciate my tortoises and life a lot more.
 

Cybertort

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Wow, I had such hope that at least the one was doing fine. Boy, you sure did try though. It's amazing it even grew at all.
Just and FYI. A lot of us don't count eggs as bad until they have gone rotten. It's amazing how just one little thing being off can delay the egg from developing.
Good luck with the next clutch.
Thanks, as for the remaining eggs, one just pipped about 4 days ago and took its first pee yesterday!

Its shell is much harder and larger in size as well (about 1.2inches/2.7cm) compared to its sibling that passed who was (about 0.9 inches/2.3cm).

A little bittersweet but at least there is still some good news.

IMG 1393
 
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