Special Care for Hatchling Desert Tortoises
Breeding captive tortoises is discouraged because of the number of young tortoises already available for adoption. Occasionally, an adult female may lay viable eggs from a mating years earlier that results in tortoise hatchlings in a backyard enclosure. It is important that hatchlings are kept outside, so that their shell and bone development can benefit from sunlight.
The hatchling enclosure should provide both sun and shade throughout the day. Young tortoises need to be protected from predators such as cats, dogs and birds, so the enclosure must be covered with a material that allows sunlight to enter. Wire fencing or poultry netting is an appropriate cover provided the openings in the mesh are small enough that a tortoise cannot get its head or legs stuck.
A smaller version of the adult burrow should be prepared to provide a warm weather shelter and a place for cold weather hibernation. Several young tortoises can use the same burrow. The burrow should be kept away from grassy areas that may attract ants to protect the hatchlings.
Hibernation in Hatchlings
Hatchlings that are healthy and that weight more than 20 grams should be allowed to hibernate during their first winter. The hatchling’s appetite will decrease as the weather becomes cooler in the fall. Supplemental food should not be given after approximately October 1. If a hatchling tries to hibernate outside of the burrow, move it inside. Some mortality can be expected during hibernation (both inside and outside), although survival of hibernating captive hatchlings is usually considerably higher than hatchlings in the wild.
Inside hibernation is acceptable if the same methods outlined for adults are used. Feeding should be stopped approximately 10 days prior to placing a hatchling in hibernation to allow the digestive tract to empty. During hibernation, hatchlings should be soaked in a shallow dish containing one-half inch of water for 30 minutes every 2-3 weeks. Hatchlings should be removed from hibernation and placed in their enclosure to resume regular feeding once they become active in the spring.
If a hatchling is not healthy enough to hibernate, or weighs less than 20 grams, it should be brought inside and not be allowed to hibernate. Keep it in a plastic shoe box or similar container filled with a one-quarter to one-half inch diameter gravel substrate. Sand and fine gravel should be avoided since hatchlings may ingest it, causing fecal impaction and gastrointestinal infections. The daytime temperature for hatchlings should be kept between 80-85° F with a nighttime temperature range of 68-75° F. A normal light cycle of 11 hours day and 13 hours night should be maintained using artificial lighting. 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, preferably a mercury-vapor lamp which provides full spectrum light as well as heat. A shelter box should be provided for resting from the heat to prevent dehydration. Hatchlings can easily tip over onto their backs, usually by climbing up the wall or over other hatchlings, so it is best to keep only one hatchling per box to reduce this problem.
Hatchling tortoises should be offered the same foods as adult, although in different amounts. A hatchling needs about twice the protein and half the fiber content as an adult until their third year. A tortoise that lacks 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, primrose, and rock hibiscus. Cultivated plants like clover, alfalfa, and dichondra, and produce including kale, collards, turnip greens, beet greens, mustard greens, spinach, bok choy, dandelion greens, parsley and cilantro are also good alternatives. It is recommended that a variety of these foods is offered at each feeding. Course, dry alfalfa hay should be avoided. Hatchlings eat frequently and should be provided food several times a day.
Several plant species should be established in the enclosure to allow browsing. A grazing box is recommended if the hatchling must be housed inside. A shoe box can be planted with a mixture of alfalfa and clover. After the plants are established, the tortoise should be placed in the box several times a day to browse. Shade must be available in the container at all times. To prevent overgrazing in both indoor and outdoor enclosures, 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 other toxic agent should be used near the hatchlings, as they are especially susceptible to these compounds.
Hatchlings require a shallow water dish containing about one-half inch of water for drinking and soaking. Their shell is relatively soft, but will harden over time if it has access to an appropriate diet and sunlight.