Neonatal Care of Red-footed Tortoises
by Allegra Fung
Incubation periods usually range from three to five months but can last up to six months. Patience is the hardest part at this time. The first sign that the neonate is ready to hatch is the obvious signs of cracking in the eggshell.
The initial crack usually appears as a roundish shaped hole with the hard eggshell cracked leaving the soft inner eggshell exposed. You may be able to see the egg tooth of the neonate and a bit of the nose at this time. It is important to spray the egg with water to help soften the shell.
The egg is put in a separate container inside the incubator on top of a wet paper towel, keeping the same orientation, specifically in the same position it was in the incubator. The wet paper towel is bunched to cradle the egg so that it won’t move around as the neonate shifts within the egg trying to break free.
Depending on the tortoise, it can fully hatch out of the egg shell within the first day, but normally takes two to three days after the first signs of hatching. It is important to leave the egg alone at this time. The neonate is working hard to shift itself around in the egg and use its egg tooth to break free; distractions are not welcome. The neonate usually makes the initial hole in the shell and proceeds to shift in a circular fashion chipping away at the egg shell until a seam is formed freeing the hatchling.
Never help the neonate by breaking it free of the eggshell prematurely. Only in extreme circumstances should the escape from the egg be aided, specifically when it is apparent that the hatchling is in distress or after the third day. The neonates need this initial exercise to build up its strength. In my experience, when prematurely freeing a hatchling from its egg shell the hatchling is weakened and takes longer to settle into eating properly and overall development appears to be affected.
Once the eggshell can be freely taken off of the hatchling (you will know what I am talking about when you see it), you must be very careful with handling the neonate as the egg sac is still visible and swollen. The egg sac is where the neonate will get its nutrients from while it recovers from the hard work of getting free of the egg.
Clean off the hatchling with lukewarm water from the running tap. Be careful to avoid getting water up its little nose. The hatchling is covered in the clear yolk from the egg. Make its first bath quick as to limit the trauma and stress to the hatchling. If you are not comfortable with this step, you can skip it all together. The first bath is to wash off the clear yolk that is clumped on the shell.
Once the bath is complete or skipped altogether, put the hatchling in a clean separate container inside the incubator. In the container, put a moist paper towel and make a “nest” if necessary for the hatchling. The paper towel needs to be moist to avoid the egg sac from sticking to it. The “nest” is only necessary if the egg sac is so large that the hatchling falls on its face and cannot move. Close the incubator and leave it alone to rest and recover from its hard work.
The next day, you can check the hatchling to make sure it is doing OK and replace the moist paper towel with a clean one. At this time, the hatchling does not need water or food as it is getting everything it needs from the egg sac. It generally takes one to three days for the egg sac to be fully absorbed.
Once the egg sac is absorbed, you will see a seam along the plastron of the hatchling. This is where the egg sac was attached; this area is still soft and vulnerable. At this time, put the hatchling in a larger container lined with a misted paper towel in the incubator.
Start soaking the hatchlings in lukewarm water for 10 minutes daily and start feeding them shredded greens daily as well. They may or may not be hungry or thirsty yet, but still offer it to them in case they are ready to eat and drink. Rinse out the container and change the paper towel out daily even if there is no waste. The hatchling are urinating and may be eating the poo, leaving behind the bacteria.
After a week or so, I put the hatchlings in a different incubator with finely shredded cypress mulch as the substrate. (If we did it earlier, the cypress might damage the yolk sacs.) The incubator temps are set at the same temps as the egg incubator (28-29c/82-84f). It is set up as a mini-enclosure with water dish and all. This is the time to allow the hatchlings to grow in a controlled environment while they are still relatively fragile. I crack the top of the incubator for a few hours daily to allow some of the humidity created by the water dish to escape and allow a fresh flow of oxygen. After a month or so, I will set up the hatchlings into their “grow out” containers .
(All photos by Allegra Fung)