What You Need To Know About Baby Tortoises

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Well-Known Member
10 Year Member!
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Jan 17, 2012
Location (City and/or State)
Sacramento, CA (Central Valley)
We encounter this sooooo much that I will give the long version for those who wish to take the time to read...

I firmly believe that most problems we have with baby tortoises are simply because we fail to provide the proper conditions for a baby tortoise to complete its development and become a stronger and healthy juvenile. That is: proper heat and humidity. That is the starting point for tortoise keeping. Without it, diet, calcium, UVB, exercise, etc will not matter. But this is the most overlooked (or perhaps misunderstood) part in my opinion in seeing how most people set up their new tortoises when they get them.

Baby tortoises emerge from the egg looking quite a bit like miniature adults. But we cannot be fooled into believing they are already complete, hardy animals like an adult. Their shells have barely started calcifying and are mostly cartilage. Their organs are still developing and gaining the ability to metabolize the hard-to-digest foods they will learn to live on. Their small size which allow a mother to at least pass an egg from it's body, leaves the small baby easily desiccated and at the mercy of its surroundings for heat as its small body will gain and lose heat and moisture so quickly. The egg was dug into the earth in a place where ground temperatures were much more stable and did not experience the nighttime drops that happens just 6 inches or so above them. Surrounded by shell they were immersed in fluid to protect them from any dehydration.

Suddenly, they hatch. They often remain in the nest chamber protected with high humidity and more stable temperatures for up to a month before digging out. This gives more time to start to develop and absorb their yolk sacs with the remaining nutrition it contains to start growth and begin calcifying bones. They often will eat their eggshells for added calcium. They need this hatching-temperature protection and extremely high humidity as a transition to the "real world".

When they emerge, they normally have waited for rains to soften the earth. Which also means high humidity and new tender plant growth for their first foods. The rains come in the hot season so the temperatures are normally more ideal along with that moisture from the monsoons. They must quickly find places to hide - both from predators and from the conditions as there will be more and more dry spells and they cannot live in those conditions yet. Most will not make it. Literally, 99% will die. Even if we assume half of that is from predation, still 98% of the remaining are killed by the "great conditions they have in the wild"! Yet time and again people want to argue and talk about emulating their "conditions in the wild" as the best way to keep them. We cannot look at the conditions we see in the wild. We have to look at the micro-climates the lucky few baby tortoises manage to find in the wild, in the good year when a few babies can survive.

To me that is best found by also looking at what conditions must be met for an egg to allow a tortoise to begin life and develop in that protected shell? For the species we normally see the most - the old before-the-creation-of so-many-genus scientist gave us so many names. The OLD Geochelone genus which included leopards, stars and sulcatas all in that same genus. This is temperatures in the 86°-88° range and in 100% humidity in a protected shell. That is what they need to start to grow. That is their optimal metabolic temperatures. When they hatch, that is what they need to find to survive. When conditions change and drier seasons come, they must dig down or find bushes to push under where humidity can remain close to 100% even on days when the weather conditions show humidity at 30% at a weather station. They also come from areas of the world where ground temperatures stay relatively warm. Even on cold "winter" days the ground temperature is still in the high 70°s. So they know digging in a little, especially under a bush or bank, is warmer temperatures if the day is cool, or better temperatures if the day is too hot. If they cannot find that - as most cannot - they die.

So how do we create an environment like that in our homes, in captivity? Most homes are cooler than that, especially in the winter. So the enclosure we choose must be insulated. We must keep in mind a thermometer in the middle of the tank and a few inches above the substrate is not the whole story. What is the temperature in the corner where the tortoise instinctively pushes, down at the bottom with the substrate pushed aside? That is where the young tortoise instinctively knows the best temperatures and humidity is. But our enclosures (both inside and outdoors) are backwards in that regard in our temperate climates of the US and Europe. As they dig in, it gets cooler. Much cooler than their optimal 86° they need.

I have found the only way to reliably do this is an insulated, closed enclosure. AND... the bottom should be insulated most importantly. That is where they live, and the ground is what they live by. In our areas, the bottom of the enclosure is by far the coolest and therefore most dangerous part of the enclosure. An open top, or screen top will make this even worse. Create an enclosure for your tortoise that never drops below 80° in the coolest, deepest corner of the enclosure, even on the coldest, darkest night of the year in your home. Maintain humidity in the center of the enclosure at 80%. That means it will be 100% in the hide or under a plant, and probably 50% directly under the basking light midday. But that conditions will create a place where when your young tortoise warms up in the warmer areas and moves to a part of the enclosure just 2° cooler - it can have condensation forming on its shell! Now you have a good baby-raising enclosure. Now provide the good diet, proper UVB exposure a daily soak and enough room to exercise, and you will have a tortoise that thrives.

We must also keep in mind that the breeder from which we got the tortoise should understand all this as well. That breeder should have allowed the hatching tortoise the perfect conditions of the nest chamber - 87° and 100% humidity - and complete protection for the fist week or so along with a good variety of proper foods to start the digestive system and organs working and developing properly.

Tortoises are remarkably hardy and disease resistant. More so than most any animal. However - It is the environmental conditions that they are dependent upon.
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