Captive Desert Tortoise Care for Hatchlings
Special Care for Hatchling Desert Tortoises
Breeding captive tortoises is illegal and increases the number of captive tortoises needing adoptive homes, but occasionally an adult female desert tortoise may lay viable eggs from mating years earlier, resulting in tortoise hatchlings in your backyard enclosure. In this case, it is important that they are kept outside so that they can receive sunlight to help develop a healthy shell and bones. Contact the Desert Tortoise Adoption program coordinator as soon as possible if you recently adopted a female desert tortoise and suspect she may be gravid, or is laying eggs, or if you find hatchlings in your backyard and need to surrender them to the adoption program.
A smaller version of the adult burrow should be prepared for warm weather shelter and cold weather hibernation. The hatchling enclosure should provide both sun and shade throughout the day.
Because young tortoises must be protected from predators such as cats, dogs and birds, the enclosure must be covered, but allow sunlight inside. Wire fencing or poultry netting is appropriate, but should either be too small for the tortoise’s head or limbs to penetrate or large enough to allow the head and limbs to freely enter and exit.
To protect the hatchlings from ants, keep the tortoise burrow away from grassy feeding zones which may attract ants because of the extra water.
Hibernation in Hatchlings
If healthy, hatchlings should be allowed to hibernate during their first winter. As the weather becomes cooler in the fall, the appetite of the hatchlings should naturally decrease. If a hatchling attempts to hibernate outside the enclosure, move it inside the burrow. During hibernation either inside or outside, mortality can be expected, but survival of hibernating captive hatchlings is usually considerably higher than in the wild.
Hibernation indoors is acceptable if the same methods outlined for adults are used.
Approximately 10 days prior to placing hatchlings in hibernation, feeding should be stopped to allow the digestive tract to empty. If hibernating indoors, hatchlings become active in the spring, they should be removed from hibernation and placed in their enclosure to resume regular feeding.
If your hatchling is not healthy enough to hibernate, contact a veterinarian and bring it inside to prevent it from hibernating.
The daytime temperature for hatchlings should range between 85-90 degrees in one spot of the enclosure, and 68-75 degrees at night. A normal day/night light cycle (11 hours day/13 hour night) using artificial lighting should be maintained. Hatchlings must receive regular solar radiation to ensure proper vitamin D synthesis and calcium assimilation. The required ultraviolet radiation in the UV-B range is filtered by glass, but the minimum requirements can be met by artificial lighting.
A shelter box of some type should be provided for resting from heat to prevent dehydration. Hatchlings can easily tip over onto their backs, usually by climbing against the wall or over siblings, so it is best to keep only one hatchling per box to reduce this problem.
The same foods offered to adults should be made available to young tortoises, but in smaller amounts. The hatchling diet should contain about twice the protein and half the fiber content of the adult diet until the third year.
A tortoise that does not receive adequate protein will develop a thin shell, become stunted and have a greatly reduced life expectancy.
Good sources of protein for young tortoises include:
- Natural forages like mallows, primroses and rock hibiscus
- Cultivated plants like clover and dichondra
- Produce like kale, collards, turnip greens, beet greens, mustard greens, bok choy, dandelion greens, parsley and cilantro
- Chopped Timothy or Bermuda grass hay is another good option
Hatchlings eat frequently and should be provided food daily. It is always a good idea to mix several food items in each feeding and feed a variety of these foods. Several plant species should be established in the enclosure to allow browsing.
To prevent overgrazing, 14 days of plant growth is recommended before allowing the tortoise access to the plants. If supplementary foods are offered, remove uneaten portions from the enclosure at the end of the day to avoid attracting insects.
No insecticide, pesticide or any toxic agent should be used near the hatchlings, as they are especially susceptible to these compounds.
Hatchlings require a shallow water dish containing about a half-inch of water for drinking and soaking. Be sure to keep the water dish away from the walls of the enclosure as they can flip over into them in corners. The shell is relatively soft but will harden over time if the tortoise has access to an appropriate diet and sunlight.