Readers’ wildlife photos

Reader Diane G., an avid birder and animal lover, incubated and raised a baby tortoise, documenting it with this cool story (her words are indented). Enjoy it on this holiday weekend!

The recent article about nine new babies of an 80-year-old Galapagos Tortoise at the Zurich Zoo reminded me of our own little tortoises’ blessed event, and I thought I’d send some pictures of the youngster.

In 2000, out of the blue, my 9-year-old daughter Liz decided she wanted a tortoise for her birthday.  Being a family that’s gaga for animals, we did some research and concluded that the only common tortoise in the pet trade that we could possibly provide enough room and environmental richness for was the so-called Russian Tortoise, Agrionemys horsfieldii, one of the smallest available.  That August we welcomed Vladimir to the family.  He was absolutely captivating and so two years later we adopted a female, Anastasia.

(Despite its common name this is a tortoise of the ‘stans”—“eastern Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, southern Kazakhstan, the westernmost part of Xinjiang (China), and part of northwestern Pakistan…  Its range has been reported to cover 3,362,935 km2, with the Central Asian deserts containing 73% of the species range…” )

Two years later I found two eggs on the shavings in Anya’s indoor tub.  Wow—cool, right?  Once more we read up, found the right incubator settings, and began the first of several long slogs of trying to hatch tortoise eggs.  Two years and ten eggs later, we were astounded when egg # 11 hatched!  Here’s the youngster right after hatching–with a piece of eggshell covering his head, naturally.

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The second, third, and fourth photos show some of his first meals, after his yolk sac was completely absorbed. The last one was taken through the side of his plastic enclosure, so it’s a bit clouded, but I just love the way he had to stand on his tippy-toes to reach the repast in his yogurt-carton lid dish!

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For the next shot, we placed the hatchling in a tub with Dad (center) and Mom (right) for a size comparison.

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Liz wanted to continue the Russian-name theme but it’s nearly impossible to sex these baby tortoises; thus she decided that the offspring would be either Natasha or Boris, and for the time-being we’d call it NB. A few years later we determined it was male, but after calling him NB for so long, it’s been difficult to remember to say Boris–90% of the time he’s still NB.

Anya continued to lay eggs through 2007, for a total of 21 overall, but NB was the only one ever to hatch. I dissected most of the unhatched eggs after incubating, but found only one nearly fully developed embryo, another one that died at a much younger stage, a few with barely visible evidence of fertilization, and many clear eggs.

Sadly, we lost Anya to a bad infection a few years ago; but Vladi and NB are still going strong. The little guy is nearly 12 years old now, and bigger than his father.

Jerry asked about how we keep them.  Happily we had an unused chicken run at the time, which I divided in two lengthwise for them (because males and females can’t be kept together except for short periods in order to mate,  nor can two males be kept together because they fight). Here’s a shot of the habitat with NB visible in the front of the left side run.

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When these shots were taken he was about half grown, I’d say.

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When they have to be inside, they each had a separate tub:

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Now, with Anya gone and NB grown, the latter uses the former’s tub.  We’ve had Vladi now for nearly 16 years, and hope he & NB stick around for many more.


  1. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted July 3, 2016 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Diane, this is an absolutely captivating story! Thank you for sharing with us!

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 3, 2016 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, Mark!

  2. Christopher
    Posted July 3, 2016 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    Lovely story! I also have an A. horsfieldii, male, named Fyodor, and yes, he can’t be kept with anyone else! I dated a woman that had a female red-footed tortoise who was easily 10x larger but Fud (his nickname) still did the whole head-bobbing, shell-ramming, and foot-biting. Male tortoises are such romantics!

    As Fud lives the bachelor life, eggs are not an experience I have to deal with but I did raise 6 C.serpentina babes from eggs taken from a road-killed mother. It was relatively easy and fun, and I recommend it to anyone who happens upon an intact, recently murdered turtle/tortoise on the road, which are far too common, especially snapping turtles which are targeted by many truck-driving rednecks “they eat all the fish” (not true but when has rational thought, data, etc. ever mattered to those yahoos).

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 3, 2016 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      I’d love to raise a tortoise/turtle from an egg and never thought about harvesting them from dead turtles. I probably couldn’t stomach it though as the thought of a dead turtle bothers me more than other animals, I think because I grew up with my yellow-footed tortoise.

    • Dine G.
      Posted July 3, 2016 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

      Christopher–the comments here made me laugh out loud many times–your remark about “romantics” was the first.😀

      Very cool about the snappers! I’ve read more than once about the possibility of finding eggs in a road-killed chelonian, but not yet tried it myself. One of these days…!

  3. Sue Sommers
    Posted July 3, 2016 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    How do you know when it is time for the short period to mate? I enjoyed the story and the photos.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 3, 2016 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

      Sue, I never ran across a way to tell when to mate these guys despite a lot of reading. I put them together only after a suitable period of time had passed since the last liaison, and I felt Anya had recovered sufficiently. Actually, less often than that, since making sure that the incubator parameters were stable for up to 12 weeks was a bit of a chore that I was glad to put off for a while.

      I can’t recall a time when I put them together that Vladi was not hot to trot. Anya needed more watching, as Vlad (this would be a good place to add, “the impaler”) was indeed quite rough, biting at her head and legs for one thing. I separated them whenever I thought Anya had had enough and definitely wasn’t in the mood.

      So by “short time,” I meant the short amount of time I left them together with each other, not any particular season.

      • Merilee
        Posted July 4, 2016 at 8:06 am | Permalink

        The impaler😜

  4. Merilee
    Posted July 3, 2016 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    Wonderful story and pics, Diane.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 3, 2016 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Merilee. 🙂

  5. Heather Hastie
    Posted July 3, 2016 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    Wonderful Diane! What a cool story! Thanks for sharing.🙂

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 3, 2016 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Heather!

  6. rickflick
    Posted July 3, 2016 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    Great experience!

  7. Karen Bartelt
    Posted July 3, 2016 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    We kept a box turtle for awhile. Yes, probably illegal, but some friends had roused “Rocket” from hibernation, and it was late fall, so we took her in. She also laid two eggs, but despite careful incubation, they never hatched. She had the run of the house, and my dogs were scared to death of her. We put a bow on her at Christmas. She was released the next summer. I’ve also kept aquatic turtles over the years, so I really enjoyed these photos and the story.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 3, 2016 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

      “…my dogs were scared to death of her.”

      My second guffaw of the thread! 😀

      “Rocket” is a great turtle name.🙂 Hmm, I could try the Xmas bows on the boys this year…😉

  8. Diana MacPherson
    Posted July 3, 2016 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Squee! I love tortoises because I grew up with one. My parents had “Esther” before they had me. Esther was a yellow-footed tortoise from the Amazonian rain forest. He had, at various times, enclosures and fenced yards to roam in and in winter was allowed to roam around the house. This was because he refused to stay in any sort of enclosure and would spend all his time pushing against it and trying to get out (often falling on his back). I find tortoises stubborn that way and if there is a gate, they will find the gate and push on it constantly.

    Tortoises are also curious. Esther once escaped the yard and went for a walk down the sidewalk to check out some construction going on, then turned around & came back. Of course, that was terrifying because he could have been captured and harmed. I used to bring Esther to school for the Kindergarten class to see him so all the kids I went to school with and then some remember him.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 3, 2016 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

      “My parents had “Esther” before they had me.”

      LOL, love it! Your parents were certainly talented.

      I gather from the Esther/he construction that he was also named before his sex was known.

      Yes, sometimes the tortoises will do nothing but claw and claw at the sides of their tubs, which used to make me feel terrible but now I just accept it as part of their shtick. (Unless it is a good time to let them out for a while.) Seems to me that some atmospheric conditions set them off, but I haven’t really studied that. They will occasionally do the same when they’re in their runs outside, walking the whole length of the fencing and back again. (Takes a while. 😉 )

      Wow, how fortunate that Esther returned after her–er, his–walk-about!

      As a fellow tortoise fancier, I always love to hear your tales of yours!

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 4, 2016 at 9:42 am | Permalink

        Yes, it was quite the shock when we figured out that Esther was a male. We thought he had been injured or something. Then began the mating season’s months of shoe humping. I think Esther would’ve been easy to breed as he regularly went into a mating season mode and then out of it.

        You’re probably right about atmospheric conditions as Esther could sense a thunderstorm coming and would head to his shelter in the yard long before it showed up.

  9. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted July 3, 2016 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Wow! Well done!

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 3, 2016 at 10:49 pm | Permalink

      Thank you!

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted July 3, 2016 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    Cool turtle & side salad, DG!

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 3, 2016 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Ken.🙂

  11. Posted July 3, 2016 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    “We’ve had Vladi now for nearly 16 years, and hope he & NB stick around for many more.”

    I imagine it could be many, many more. Don’t tortoises have very long lives?

    Great story and pictures.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 3, 2016 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

      Yes, indeed. Didn’t remember what the longevity was for this species so just googled it and the first source said at least 50 years or more. Happily my kids would both be glad to take over the torts’ care if necessary–after all, they’re technically Liz’s, but she wasn’t able to take them to college with her; and their nice outdoor runs are here.

  12. Ben
    Posted July 3, 2016 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    Great story and photos. Thanks.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 3, 2016 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

      Thank you!

  13. Mark R.
    Posted July 3, 2016 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    I loved this story and accompanying photos. That one with NB on his tiptoes was so cute.🙂

    I tried breeding Red-ear Sliders for a about 10 years. I had a male and two females. The females both laid a few eggs every year, but I never successfully incubated them. Judging from your experience, it seems a lot harder than I thought.

    The male died because I’m stupid. I later tried getting another male, but it turned out being a female. You can easily sex adult Sliders because males have very long front toenails (used to “tickle” a female’s face in hopes of copulating). At most pet stores, all the turtles are young, so it’s a guessing game.

    Anyway, I’ve had the three females now for about 10 years. I’ve had the oldest turtle “Big Mama” since 1992. She was at least 10 when I got her, so she’s upwards of 34. I hope we both have our turtles/tortoises for many more years.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 3, 2016 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

      Very cool, Mark! I think water turtles are much harder to keep than tortoises or box turtles! Do you have a pond? I love to see sliders & other species swimming when they’re in an aquarium–so in their element!

      One of my vets suggested that Vladi and Anya might be something like different subspecies, or at least in some way genetically poorly compatible. When you think about the broad range and low vagility of these torts it’s easy to imagine how something like that might happen. Anya’s shell was much thicker than Vladi’s, one observable difference, though we’d no idea if that were genetic or not.

  14. Posted July 3, 2016 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    A lovely story Diane, and what perseverance! I’d have given up after the first five or six eggs failed.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 3, 2016 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Lou.🙂 And you’d have had to give up, given that you always have so many other irons in the fire!

  15. Posted July 3, 2016 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic story and lovelyee photos, Diane G.! Thanks!

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 3, 2016 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, S-p!

  16. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted July 3, 2016 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    Great story, Diane.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 3, 2016 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Aidan; but you disappoint me–aren’t you going to chime in about the different meanings of the terms turtle & tortoise, here vs. across the pond? 😀

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted July 4, 2016 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

        Turtles are a salt-water phenomenon here – TTOMK there are no aquatic European testudines. Which rather raises a question of “Why”, if the body plan is so successful in the Americas.

  17. Helen Hollis
    Posted July 4, 2016 at 2:04 am | Permalink

    Showed this to my close friends and they all thought, how does she take the time and put forth the effort to do this on top of all the normal stuff we do in life? I said she must be Finnish at heart and has Sisu.

  18. Carol Fiske
    Posted July 13, 2016 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    As a young girl in the 1950s in Pennsylvania I had several box turtles, one we found and kept in a stone lined window well started to dig a hole with its back legs, curiosity and some knowledge I carefully opened the hole and touched the soft eggs, recovered them, later one hatched, about the size of a quarter as I remember,feed it worms and vegetables
    It was a really great experience

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