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NOTES ON BREEDING THE AFRICAN SPUR-THIGH TORTOISE

GEOCHELONE SULCATA

by Bruce Stephenson (2004)

Sulcata Herd

 

Adult Sulcata Worming

 

  • Worm in February/March with Piparazene and Safeguard.  Remember to repeat each medication in one month.
  • Worm in May/June the same as above.
  • See feeding pumpkin below also as a natural wormer.

 

Sulcata Sexing

 

  • Males have convex or out-spreading anal scutes and indented plastrons.
  • Females have concave or in-spreading anal scutes and absolutely no indentation of the plastron.
  • Females have a nub of a tail with absolutely no lengthening apparent.
  • You should be able to definitely sex them by 13 inches straight length.
  • Babies can be sexed by the anal scute spread by about 8 months and 4 inches long by an expert.

 

Feeding Adult Sulcatas

 

  • Coastal Hay is absolutely necessary for normal digestion.
  • Try to place all food on top of coastal hay, especially the produce.
  • Mazuri Tortoise Diet is the current gold standard of prepared diets.  It is supposed to have very high fiber and you can feed to baby sulcatas when you prepare some for adults.  It has 15% protein, 18% fiber, 1.45% calcium, and .60% phosphorus.  The ingredients are ground soybean hulls, ground corn, ground oats, dehulled soybean meal, wheat middlings, cane molasses, brewer's dried yeast, soybean oil, wheat germ, dehydrated alfalfa meal dical phosphate, calcium carbonate, etc.  My current program is to fill 4 Home Depot buckets 1/3rd full of Mazuri.  Water is added to the 1/3rd level.  Then 3 large cans of canned pumpkin is added to each bucket.  Three buckets then have fine oystershell added.  One bucket has Di-Cal powder supplement added.  The buckets are then mixed with a high-power drill with a popcorn ceiling mixer attachment.  The buckets are hand scraped onto large plastic lids and carried outside.  The last bucket with the powdered calcium is used to make dishes of the mixture for the younger tortoises. 
  • In the past I have put Purina Sow Chow, which is now called Country Acres Pork Grower 14 and is 14% protein, 7% fiber, 1.3% calcium, and .50% phosphorus, in orange Home Depot buckets and added a 16 ounce cup of fine oystershell on top with occasionally a few tablespoons of Vionate.  The ingredients are grain products, processed grain byproducts, plant protein products, roughage products, molasses products, animal fat, calcium propionate, etc.  Warm water is then added and the bucket is mixed with a high power drill with a popcorn ceiling mixer attachment.  Sometimes Avitron is substituted for the Vionate.  The mix is prepared thick and not runny or watery.  This is served on sweaterbox lids with coastal hay on bottom and on top.
  • Some owners feed Purina Pure Pride 100 horse chow which contains no animal proteins and has a large percentage of grain.  One author feels that this food is much too high in its energy content.  That author feeds FINE-stemmed premium alfalfa hay to his large and small sulcatas.
  • Feeding the maximum possible of produce of widest mix with maximum amount of romaine lettuce seems to be the key to getting the best possible clutch size and fertility.  The male you use may also be a big factor in fertility.
  • Calcium supplementation seems to be necessary for good egg-shell formation.  I have used small oystershell mixed with diets that has definitely worked extremely well.
  • Now, I also buy bulk boxes of cuttlebone and toss them on the hay area of the yard.  Numerous cuttlebone is provided to the young and baby tortoises.
  • A large bag of plain, powdered limestone (calcium carbonate) is very inexpensive.  You can find 50-pound bags of calcium carbonate at feed stores that sell poultry supplies.  The best way to use it is to sprinkle a small amount lightly over the tortoise's food on a regular basis.
  • Evidently in Africa and other places the grasses that tortoises eat contain a huge amount of calcium because of the usually dry environment. In the U.S. the normal rainfall washes the minerals from the soil.
  • Romaine lettuce is the gold standard of sulcata food.
  • Do not let adults get fat or they will not lay eggs.
  • Oxbow Hay Company at http://www.oxbowhay.com sells orchard grass hay UPS in manageable sizes a high-quality grass hay.  Many owners recommend this hay.  I should ask them if they sell a fine chopped hay for small sulcatas.
  • Pumpkin:  used occasionally, this is a beneficial food since pumpkin contains mannitol, a natural deworming compound.  We use canned pumpkin puree as a way to get calcium supplements into our tortoises.  Each tortoise receives a couple of spoonfuls of canned pumpkin mixed with a heaping spoonful of calcium carbonate once a week as a treat.  Whole pumpkins are a good seasonal food.  You should remove the seeds beforehand.  Pumpkins will stay fresh for many months if properly stored.
  • Canned pumpkin is very delicious to sulcata tortoises!
  • Zucchini is also mentioned as a good dietary addition. 
  • Kudzu may be a good food for sulcatas:  experiment if opportunity arises.  Nutritionally, it is very high rated.

 

Heating Adult Sulcatas

 

  • Lock adults inside their barns when the outside temperature is below 50F in the daytime.
  • Radio Shack wireless thermometer with add-on sensors  is used to monitor barn temperatures.
  • The optimal barn temperature is 86F however it can go as high as 92 with the adults being warm and very comfortable.

 

Nesting Female Sulcatas

 

  • Cover the nesting female with a rubber cattle tub that has the bottom cut out.  Otherwise the laying female will be attacked by curious or crazy females that may have already laid.  I have a theory that females thus guard their nests somewhat in the wild.
  • Mark the nest with a stick in the ground or remove the female when she starts to cover the eggs or it is very difficult to find the nest.
  • Laying starts in late August and September for me.  My hatching starts in late October.
  • Laying ends in in late March for me.  My hatching ends in June.
  • My laying season is the opposite of all other breeders and their sulcatas start laying in late December.

 

Incubating Sulcata Eggs

 

  • Sulcatas can hatch in as few as 84 days for me.  A good book states that incubation can be as short as 92 days, but more typically is 120 to 160 days.  Label each plastic shoebox to begin checking with a date of two months after laying. 
  • The Vermiculite in the containers should be a hair below compressibility feeling dampness at the most throughout incubation.  It is ok for the vermiculite to become somewhat dryer than this during incubation.  Spray the inside lid with water if the vermiculite starts to get really dry.  Wet vermiculite seems to be extremely bad for eggs with the eggs expanding enough to crack and show the inner soft casing.  Too much spraying, wetness, and humidity also results in premature hatching.
  • Remove eggs when you are sure they have gone bad.  This is when maggots attack or when the egg goes to light to hold a healthy baby.  The first maggot attacks begin 1 to 1-1/2 months of egg age.
  • Throw away very light eggs only.  Maggots and smell can cover good eggs.  Heavy eggs are still good eggs.  They can have black lines.
  • Eggs are probably bad 1-1/2 months after the main hatch.
  • Try to keep eggs to hatch in their original shoeboxes so you don't have to move them however you must move the eggs if they hatch during a maggot attack.  Wipe away pupae from the inside sides of shoeboxes and remove light eggs.  Change the lid.
  • A colony of black sweet ants will clean the eggs by eating humpback fly eggs, maggots, and pupae.  Black ants can be attracted by laying bags of cypress mulch outside and then bringing the colony into the egg room.  They seem to especially like to colonize styrofoam incubators.  They really like to go after crickets and they can be used to help attract the black ants.
  • 82-84F is the best temperature for incubation because this will result in less deformities.  Temperatures can go very low or very high for brief periods of time.  The best way to heat the egg room is by a thru-the-wall 220V AC/Heat air conditioner. 
  • When outside temperatures get into the 40's to 30's I screw 250W red heat lamps into the 2 overhead sockets near the sink and use duct tape to keep the switch on.  Just unscrew the first circlelamp a little to turn bright light off at night.
  • Eggs found after a long burial in cold weather can still hatch.
  • Eggs cracked during laying are never good.  I have found no repair method to ever work on sulcata eggs.
  • Eggs with a lot of extra calcifications are usually bad.
  • Eggs with raised fungused lines with mites all over are usually bad.
  • Good eggs can have black cracks.
  • Eggs of all shapes and sizes can hatch although very small babies can be very weak and require daily soaking and misting.
  • Dirty or ugly stained eggs can hatch.  Often they are stained or smelly by being next to maggot attacked eggs.
  • Good eggs can have indentations with just the inner leather showing.
  • Check pipped and hatching eggs constantly for maggot or mite attacks.  For attacked eggs wash inside and outside of egg by squeezing Povidone Iodine inside and out then wash with lukewarm water.  Squeeze more iodine into the yolk part of egg then put the egg into a separate shoebox.  It is important to try to keep the baby in the egg until the yolk is relatively small or they do not do well.  If you take out a hatchling with a large yolk wash yolk with iodine and place back in a separate shoebox until yolk is smaller.
  • Hatch eggs manually if the head and shoulders are not out in 1-2 days.  Just expose the baby and leave the yolk in the bottom half of the egg.
  • Keep a bucket in the egg room to throw away bad eggs and eggshells.  Humpback flies may be diverted to this bucket instead.  Throw out regularly.
  • After hatching rinse babies in lukewarm water and rinse the yolk with iodine then place them on their backs for at least a few minutes.  If the eyes are closed and red and swollen then they are maggot attacked and you must squirt iodine on the eye also before you set him on his back.  It may be necessary to rub iodine ointment into yolks with deep imbedded maggots also. 
  • Now rinse babies again in water and place in a shoe box that has airholes with a film of lukewarm water.  Transport to baby/egg room and mist with warm water until there is just enough water to cover the bottom of shoebox and put on the lid.  You will need to transfer the babies to new shoeboxes in order to keep water clean until yolk is absorbed.  Large babies stay until yolk is completely absorbed.  Small babies stay until yolk is nearly gone because they are not as strong.
  • Now remove the babies that are ready and put upside down until water runs off belly.  Smear iodine ointment on belly scar and put babies upside down in sweater box with sow chow substrate.  Leave upside down for at least 30 minutes and check to make sure they get flipped over.  Let babies walk off iodine for at least 30 minutes then place in their cattle tubs with sow chow substrate.
  •  

Feeding and Keeping Baby Sulcatas

 

  • Use cattle tubs with a pellet substrate.  For lighting use 4 foot shoplights.  One light will be the Reptiglo 8.0 Desert Terrarium Lamp which has UVA 33% and UVB 8%.  The other tube in the shoplight  will be the GE Plant and Aquarium Wide Spectrum Lamp.  The lights can be kept on 24 hours per day if needed.  6 months to one year is the maximum effective life and then they should be replaced.
  • The cattle tubs are kept on a double sheet of styrofoam to keep off colder floor.
  • The substrate of the tubs is sow chow.
  • Pour some Kaytee Reptile Bedding and Litter in the center of the tub on top of the sow chow.  The babies seem to do well by eating this.  The ingredients are dehydrated alfalfa meal, roughage products, and grain products.
  • Numerous cuttlebones are laid in each tub and the babies readily consume them.
  • Romaine lettuce is also the gold standard for baby sulcatas.  It is torn up very small for hatchlings.  Larger babies can eventually eat the hard hearts of the romaine heads.  Albinos can not see well enough to grab romaine pieces unless it is specially cut or torn.  For new baby albinos you must mince romaine fine with scissors.  You can mix with fine chopped and blended carrots.  Mix these fine chopped foods with Reptocal and Vionate powders every few feedings at first.  For larger albino babies tear the romaine leaves parallel to the stems so you make long harder stems with raggy leaf on each side.  Albinos are able to grab these leaves.
  • Albino babies must be soaked especially often.  The water is mixed with Aviton and Avimin every time.
  • Room temperature for the hatchlings is the same as the egg room with 84F about the optimum.
  • It is not necessary to soak sulcatas once they reach a few inches.  They only end up drinking dirty water by this point and can be given a small water cup if needed.
  • Romaine is supplemented with Mazuri Tortoise Diet for babies.  For new babies the Mazuri is smeared on a shoe box lid .  For older babies a shallow plastic bowl is heaped as high as possible with the diet.  It is probably a good idea to only feed the Mazuri once or twice per week.  It is probably a very good thing that the ground-up sow chow in the boxes gets on the wet romaine leaves while they are eating. 
  • At 6 months to one year of age the babies should be kept at a population of 11 to 14 per box.  Babies need each others company to feel comfortable and should be kept in a fair size gang.