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THROUGH THE YEAR | ADULT TORTOISES

 

Tortoises in the Wild

To rear baby tortoises successfully in captivity we need to know something about their natural lifestyle in the wild. 

Mediterranean tortoises have evolved to thrive in hot, dry places where vegetation is often sparse particularly in summer. Typically they live on south-facing hillsides, sleeping at night under rocks and thorny bushes.

In the morning they emerge to bask in the sun until they are warm enough to become active then they trundle off for their morning forage, snipping off flowers and leaves as they go. By late morning the sun is high in the sky and they return to their scrapes to pass the hot part of the day in siesta mode, often emerging again in the late afternoon for an evening feed, and so on throughout the spring and early summer months, their peak feeding period. By midsummer it is very hot and there is little to eat and they may dig themselves in for a period of aestivation.

In the late summer and autumn they begin to wind down, eating less and finally stopping altogether. They remain awake with some activity until they have emptied their guts over a period of weeks then dig themselves underground for hibernation through the cold months, typically late November/December through to mid March.

The first warm days of spring bring them up again, emerging from the ground like so many mud-pies to bask and take their first feed of the year. Adults soon begin mating and the hills resound with the sound of clashing shells.

The females dig their nests and lay their eggs in May and June. The summer sun incubates the eggs and the babies emerge from the ground around September.

 Many eggs and hatchlings are predated by foxes, hedgehogs and birds, but those which do survive live an identical lifestyle to the adults, totally independently, though very secretively, within a day or so of hatching. Typically around 10 or 12 years old they become sexually active, mating and producing fertile eggs for the next generation. They can live for many years, at least 90, probably a good few more.

 

This 'scraping a living' from the land seems a hard lifestyle to us but evolution has 'designed' them to fit this niche. Any attempt to 'improve' on this is likely to result in unnaturally rapid growth with consequent health problems. 

By its nature an English garden existence is a false improvement on the wild environment in that it is much 'cushier', food is more lush and plentiful, they don't have to walk about to search for it, and feeding activity can last throughout the day as it is not always hot enough to warrant a long siesta. Hence more food + less exercise = unhealthy overgrowth. At the same time, our season is short and often broken up by dull and cool weather which is all very unnatural for a creature from Mediterranean climes - and the keeper's instinct is to compensate by even more feeding. In an adult tortoise this won't really hurt providing the diet is a correct one of a variety of wild and cultivated plants of the type eaten in the wild. However in a baby tortoise, overfeeding will give rise to over-rapid growth causing peaking of the scutes and weakening of the underlying bone. 

Therefore we must improve on the captive environment in a different way by lengthening the season at either end and imitating the sunny and sparse conditions of the wild, whilst providing shelter from the sun, cold and predators and a correct diet in terms of both content and quantity together with a natural and varied environment.

Given these basic requirements and provided the babies are not subjected to stress in the form of careless handling by children, or attention from cats and dogs, there is no reason why they should not grow healthily and live a long and happy life.

So how do you do it? The key to the successful husbandry of any animal is to apply a combination of knowledge of its wild lifestyle and a degree of ingenuity!

Well, to see how I do it at least, go to

Natural Rearing of Tortoises

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