Baby Land Turtles
Our baby terrestrial (land) turtles like George, W, Bush, and Laura spend their first year in a 20L gallon aquarium planted as a vivarium. These are box turtles and spotted turtles who inhabit the eastern part of the United States where rain is frequent and the soil is usually damp to wet.
The bottom is filled with about two inches of potting soil that does not contain perlite. No drainage gravel is used. It is planted with tropical moss, club mosses, ivy, ferns, and creeping figs. Just about any low light small house plant will do provided it is not planted in a soil mix containing styrofoam beads. We don't like the look of white perlite and styrofoam beads in the vivarium and we don't want the turtles ingesting them. Styrofoam beads will also stick to damp turtles.
Tropical moss is supposedly better than hardy moss in vivariums. We haven't proven it yet. Tropical moss and club mosses may be hard to fine. We purchased tropical moss, club mosses, and some ferns via the internet.
| pic 1 | pic 2 | pic 3 | pic 4 | pic 5 | pic 6 | pic 7 | pic 8 | pic 9 | pic 10 | pic 11 | pic 12 |Yes baby turtles like to dig and sometimes disappear from sight, especially baby gulf coast box turtles like Laura. Baby water turtles are even worse if given the opportunity to dig. The plants provide natural cover which lessens the digging, but digging is normal. In the wild, these turtles would be underground almost all the time. So we give them a natural environment.
The soil has several advantages. First the soft soil allows their claws to develop correctly. Baby box turtles can have very offensive urine. The soil absorbs it and controls the odor. The soil also provides necessary humidity due to the normal watering and misting of the plants.
An aquarium light with a plant growing bulb is used for light. Due to the location of this vivarium, the light is turned on and off manually. We are often asked about providing UV light which adult turtles need. Baby turtles like box turtles are very rarely encountered in the wild even by experienced researchers because they live their first few years underground. They also overheat quickly in hot sun. So it stands to reason that baby land turtles do not get much UV light in the wild. We have found that our florescent aquarium light provides all the UV light they need. We do replace the bulb when dark spots appear on it.
The top of the vivarium is open for good ventilation. No source of heat such as a lamp or hot rock is provided. We have tried hot rocks and heat lamps and have concluded they do more harm than good because they dry out the vivarium and turtles. Winter heating dries out the house and vivarium fast enough. So they are maintained at normal room temperature between 70 and 75 degrees F. Daily misting and watering of the plants are usually required during the heating season.
Clean water is provided every day. We use water bowls of our own making to provide stable shallow non slip bowls that are completely safe to enter and exit. They are also easy to remove for cleaning. To make a bowl and a permanent depression in the soil, we use two plastic flower pot drainage saucers. The first saucer is cemented to the bottom of the aquarium with aquarium sealant. This provides a permanent depression in the soil for the water bowl. It takes an aquarium sealant to stand up to the constant moisture without softening while still being easily removed with a razor blade when desired.
| pic 13 | pic 14 |The water bowl is made by filling the second saucer with cement (the kind used to make concrete). We use sand mix. The wet cement will slump. As it sets, it can be worked back to the rim. After the cement is dry, the dish is soaked in a bucket of water for a week to season the concrete. Then the bowl is scrubbed with a stiff brush and water. This makes a nice heavy bowl that drops into the first saucer. We use a 6" bowl for the 20L aquarium. | pic 15 | pic 16 |See how to make these water bowls in Tour Twelve - Many Uses for Concrete.
After the turtles are one year old, they are moved to a 30 gallon breeder aquarium planted as a vivarium. Here we use an 8" water bowl. However, the turtles are now larger and need a little deeper water. We again use two plastic flower pot drainage saucers. The first one is again cemented to the bottom of the aquarium to create the depression. The second saucer is used as is without being filled with concrete.
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It is better to place the water bowls far enough from the sides of the vivariums to allow the turtles to pass without walking through the water. This allows the water to stay cleaner longer. It is amazing how much dirt a small turtle can drag into a water bowl in a days time.
The light for the 30 gallon vivarium is on a timer. The light is set to turn on after normal daylight is reached because the turtles begin stirring in the early morning light. The timer is set to go off after dark at a time convenient for us.
For both vivariums, food is placed on small ceramic dishes that are again drainage saucers for small flower pots. Flat candle holder dishes are also good. Food can also be placed in the water bowls since they are cleaned daily. W needs to eat in the water. Some box turtles also like eating in the water.
The plants are fun to grow. However, the turtles can be hard on them especially your favorite plants. They are easily replaced if they die, get too big, or are trampled. Baby turtles do not eat the plants so that is not a problem. Some smooth stones are used to decorate. We only place stones flush with the soil so they are not obstructions. Tree leaves in autumn also add a nice seasonal touch.If bugs begin to infest the vivarium, they are easily controlled by watering them with a strong chlorine bleach solution. We use about a half oz of bleach in about 8 oz of water. The bleach solution will kill most bugs and worms without harming the plants. Do not get it on the turtles. The chlorine will quickly evaporate and does not leave a harmful residue.
As you can see we place different species of turtles together and they get along just fine. Size is more critical. We keep turtles less than one year old separated from the larger ones. There legs and tails are too small to tolerate a nip from a larger turtle.
If we were raising baby land turtles or tortoises common to arid areas, we would set up a vivarium with soil and plants similar to their natural environments. Few turtles live in totally dry environments even though many people place them in totally dry conditions like washed sand or newspaper. Using and caring for plants is a good method for providing suitable moisture.
Perhaps the greatest advantage to the vivarium is cleaning. Basically we do not clean the vivarium like we would if we had the turtles on newspaper, in a plastic container, or some such artificial substrate. Scraps of food that fall off the food dish are picked up because they get moldy, but this is not a daily event. Wear and tear takes its toll on plants like moss. Sometimes we use a vacuum cleaner to remove debris. We take the turtles out first so as not to scare them.
The glass gets dirty along the bottom from the turtles. Misting and watering also spots the glass. Cleaning the glass is no worse than any other aquarium.
A vivarium can last for many years with minimal care. We have redone our vivarium completely a few times in preparation for the arrival of new babies. This is done by choice not necessity. It is part of the fun of creating environments for the turtles.
In the summer of 2004, we replanted our 20L vivarium in preparation for two new baby box turtles. We decided to try another experiment using garden compost we made complete with many bugs in it. We screened the compost first through a half inch screen and them through a quarter inch screen. The earthworms were picked out and fed to our larger turtles. Most visible bugs were lost in the process, but we knew there would be many very small bugs left in the compost that would be noticeable in the vivarium. We wanted to see if this would be a good food source for the baby turtles. Also expected were some weeds.
The bugs did not prove to be valuable as food. They were mostly visible under the food dish. The turtles were never seen eating them and the bugs were never a problem. Most were eradicated with a chorine bleach solution.
Some weeds sprouted but not as many as expected. We have tried many plants from our yard (weeds) in our vivariums with only minor successes. This time we had one notable success. We had a vibrant growing common nightshade plant that produced tiny white flowers followed by small black berries. It was pruned to stay within the vivarium.
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Hardy moss planted in the vivarium did not survive, but baby tears, creeping fig vine, and ferns did very well. In fact the compost proved to be better than any potting soil we have used. When the dry compost was watered, the water was absorbed immediately rather than repelled like dry potting soil. Our larger vivarium was looking pretty tired at that time and we replanted it the next time we had compost ready (we maintain a compost pile) later that year.
If the water bowl is lower than the surrounding soil in the vivarium, water may run into the water bowl when the plants are watered. The bowl can be raised by gluing the saucer used to make the depression onto something heavy and waterproof instead of to the bottom of the aquarium. We used a piece of plastic decking and hot melt glue. This raised the bowl one inch above the bottom of the aquarium.
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In Tour 13 see show how to make hangging planters for aquariums. We empty our aquariums during summers because we like to put our water turtles outside. So we hung a hangging planter in our 20L vivarium for the summer. It worked out so well that we left it there after the turtles distroyed all the baby tears that were planted in the vivarium.
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There are more techniques covered in other tours. While we are constantly experimenting and learning, we have concluded that a vivarium environment is a great way to house terrestrial turtles.
We hope you enjoyed our first behind-the-scenes tour. Come back again.
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