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My Turtle Laid Eggs --
What do I do????


by Darrel Barton


One of the coolest things ever is when our pets start mating behavior and perhaps even lay eggs. It's also a sign of proper care -- most wild animals will not mate or spawn if their conditions are not adequate. If they are poorly kept or stressed, their reproduction functions are among the first to slow or stop. It's just one of many factors, but it's often a sign we're doing something right!

When a turtle or tortoise is ready to lay eggs you'll see her on land, scouting for just the right site. She'll be walking around more frequently and in different patterns than usual. Often times she'll try digging in various laces like "test holes" to see if she can find just the right spot. Although this behavior is more common in tortoises than water turtles it still is something to watch for. Usually when something doesn't feel right she'll just abandon that hole and leave it as is. When she's found just the right place, then the excavation begins in earnest. She'll dig for a while with her front claws, often times just to create the initial depression in the earth. The intense, long term effort starts when she turns around and starts digging with her hind feet. Extending her hind feet out & down, one side after another, she scoops out the dirt and carried it up & out of the hole. Unlike the sea turtles shown on TV who simply "flip" the soft, flowing sand away from the hole, these excavations are slower, much more methodical and deliberate.

After digging a hole that is almost as deep as her body is long, she'll deposit her eggs, cover the hole and then leave, never to return. Her job is done and now nature (or us) take over.

Should you collect and incubate the eggs or let nature take it's course?

Two schools of thought on that. On one hand, Nature has done a really good job of keeping the species going and leaving the eggs in place to hatch in situ is by far the easiest way. On the other hand, Nature is indifferent. Not all eggs even hatch and of the ones that do not all even make it out of the excavation. Cold seasons, unusual rains (or droughts) can effect or even kill an entire clutch of eggs. On yet another hand (wait ... how many hands do we have here???) It's more work for us -- and more worry since things are now in our care.

If you leave them in place, the best thing to do is make a tube from 1/4 inch hardware cloth about two feet in diameter and a foot tall. Make a top cap of the same material and place it around the egg site. Securing it to the ground is a challenge because digging a trench caused vibration that can be detrimental or even deadly to the eggs. I place the tube over the eggs and then place a thin wooden dowel through the holes in the material, laying right on the ground and sticking out 12 inches on either side. Think of a magician sticking swords into the magic box and the sword sticking out on either side -- same idea, right at ground level so the sword is laying on the ground. Then just lay a brick on top of each end of the dowel and the wire mesh tube is now secure enough to keep birds and most small animals away from the site. Now you just wait. One note: Why not just place the brick on TOP of the mesh tube? Well, not only does that make the tube top-heavy and prone to tipping, but it will cause shadows and block the sun and even a little bit of that can effect the entire hatch.

Get involved & collect the eggs?

The first thing we need is something to put them in and somewhere to keep them. Fortunately this is all straightforward and well defined. Start with some Vermiculite (a kind of potting soil) from the garden department of any building supply store or garden center. One bag will be enough for a couple years. Get Vermiculite (I only mentioned potting soil so that you wouldn't be in the lighting section looking for a Vermiculite Light). To hold the eggs, use a shallow plastic box like the kind they sell for storing shoes. Poke, drill or cut 4 or 5 small holes in the lid for ventilation.

In a bucket or big bowl, mix enough vermiculite to fill your box with the same amount of water. IMPORTANT: Mix by WEIGHT (4 Oz Vermiculite to 4 Oz water) not by volume. Mixed right, the Vermiculite is just a bit damp -- mixed wrong, it's a wet soup. I use a gram scale like the kind found in a kitchen for measuring portion control but it can be as simple as your plastic tray, a glass, a pencil and a yardstick.

Place a pencil on the kitchen floor and place the yardstick over it right in the center. Place the empty plastic container on one end and a drinking glass on the other -- shove them around (in or out) until they balance or teeter on the yard stick. Remember the spots. Now fill the plastic tub with Vermiculite. Then add enough warm water to the glass until everything starts to teeter again. Close enough!!!!

Mix it together and stir it up and place it back in the plastic tray. Now it's time to collect the eggs.

Before we begin digging, there are several things to know about reptile eggs. First, although they are rubbery and tough compared to chicken eggs, they can be punctured and broken so care must be taken. Second, once reptile eggs are deposited ... within about 4 hours of being laid, the orientation must stay the same. The Embryo develops on the TOP of the egg and if the egg is turned upside down or even sideways it will die. This means that when we find each egg we must preserve it's up/down/sideways orientation as we dig it out, pick it up, dust it off and place it in our incubator.

Dig with your fingers, not any implements. As much as possible try to brush the dirt away rather than gouge into it. The next thing to keep in mind is that the eggs are DEEP. Very often the hole is deeper than the length of her body PLUS the length of her back legs PLUS some more. Also, the egg chamber is usually hour-glass shaped. As you scrape away dirt you will feel the walls of her excavation -- the difference between the soft dirt she dug out and the hard walls where she did not. As you scrape deeper the walls narrow like a funnel. This is the time to start slowing down and being more careful -- start brushing away dirty with just your fingers, probing just a bit deeper with each pass. Once you see the top of the first egg, brush around it until you have exposed at least the top half. Gently grasp it and extract it from the dirt, blow on it to clear away as much dirt as possible and move it to your incubation box, which should be right beside you. Make an impression that will hold almost all the egg, leaving just the top exposed. REMEMBER TO KEEP IT IN EXACTLY THE SAME ORIENTATION AS WHEN YOU EXTRACTED IT.

Back at the dig site, extracting the first egg will usually expose some portion of another, so you just repeat the about procedure until all the eggs (4-5 for a Box Turtle, 6-8 for a water turtle such as a Red Eared Slider or 25-30 for a Spur Thigh Tortoise) have been exposed and moved. Keep in mind that her original excavation was hour-glass shaped so after you expose the egg chamber the eggs may be BESIDE the others, not always below.

Incubating & hatching the eggs

This can be as simple as placing them somewhere in your garage, in some out of the way corner away from prying eyes, snooping dogs & little kids and away from vibrations and letting nature take it's course albeit in a more controlled manner. Snap the lid on and let the long hot summer do it's work. On the other hand, you can visit a local feed & supply store (or the Internet equivalent) and purchase a Still Air Incubator. They are made of Styrofoam and about 2 feet square. Place the egg container inside, plug it in, set the temp and wait. Sometimes you have to change the type of container to fit inside the incubator, but the important thing is not to the kind that turns the eggs.

How Long & How much?

That varies by species but ... GENERALLY ...... 90 days at 90 degrees. Incubation times vary greatly by temperature --- even 2 degrees less will extend the time by 24 days .... don't be in a rush and don't go above 90 degrees. In my practice, because I breed commercially, I set up duplicate egg containers with fresh, moist vermiculite and move the eggs to a new container every 30 days. This is to maintain the moisture content of the Vermiculite but I know others that merely "dribble" half a shot-glass (1/4 ounce) down the inside edge of the container every 30 days and that seems to work as well. The important thing is to not let the Vermiculite dry out and not get any one egg actually "WET."

What next?

IF you've done everything right (and that's not really a given the first time around) and IF the eggs were fertile to begin with (not every clutch is fertile anyway and nothing you can do about that) then you may see little ones poking their heads out anywhere from 85 to 120 days later. I take a peek once a day starting at day 85.

In the egg, the baby turtle grew at the top of the egg and it grew as if it were hunched over, almost folded in two. As it grew and took up most or all of the inside, it reached the point where it started to straighten out, not unlike a blossoming flower, until it crashed through. It may be more accurate to say that they explode out of the shell ... if you can think of an explosion in slow motion that can take three days.

When they finally do break out, do your very best NOT to help them get out. They still have an egg sack connected to their belly button and if that sack catches on a sharp piece of egg or tears when you try to lift him, the turtle will contract an infection and die. Once they are clear of their egg casing, you can pick them up, squirt a little Betadyne on the egg sack (this step is optional) and then move them to another container will a bit less vermiculite where they can stay warm in the incubator for another week while they absorb the egg sack.

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