By Nathan Haislip

Winter time is usually a slower season at the Turtle Survival Center (TSC), and although many of our turtles at the TSC slow down or go completely into brumation, the staff does not. During this “off-season” where husbandry demands are lower, our staff focus on facility improvements and the building of new enclosures for the growing populations of endangered turtles and tortoises. Thanks in part to some kind donations, a variety of habitat improvements have been made over the last several months.

Our Home’s (Kinixys homeana) and Forest (Kinixys erosa) Hinge-back Tortoises received enclosure updates including larger enclosures with false bottoms. These false bottoms allow humidity to remain high, while not resulting in saturated substrate. The Asian Spiny Turtle (Heosemys spinosa) winter holding area received an upgrade as well, allowing us to house females separately from males during the non-breeding season. This gives the females of this tropical species a much needed respite from a breeding season that is nearly every month of the year.

K. erosa enjoying leaf litter TSA
Spinosa habitat

Left: Forest Hinge-back Tortoise (Kinixys erosa). Credit: N. Haislip  Right: Asian Spiny Turtle (Heosemys spinosa). Credit: J. Gray

In the Hatchling Room, we implemented a recirculating aquatic system with an improved turnover rate for our hatchling Big-headed Turtles (Platysternon megacephalum). As a species that naturally inhabits clear, fast-moving, highly-oxygenated streams, water quality and movement is an important feature that helps simulate environmental factors of their natural habitat. To help achieve this, the water is both mechanically and biologically filtered through the utilization of plants and beneficial bacteria, while spray bars are used to increase oxygenation.

New platysternon set up 22
Platysternon recirculating environment

Left: Hatchling Big-headed Turtle (Platysternon megacephalum). Credit: N. Haislip  Right: Big-headed Turtle recirculating system. Credit: J. Gray

 Over in the Sulawesi Greenhouse, our Sulawesi Forest Turtles (Leucocephalon yuwonoi) also received habitat improvements. Although housed in Waterland Tubs that feature a stair-like ramp, the animals have had some difficulty accessing the land portion in the past. After an initial pilot study, we determined that large rocks placed in the aquatic portion of the environments seemed to be the most favorable item for aiding access to the land portion. The aesthetically pleasing addition of the rocks has also reduced the chance of them flipping over while allowing us to provide the turtles with deeper water in their pools. Apart from alterations of their aquatic habitat, a large donation of square plant saucers permitted us to change the terrestrial hides for these animals. The plant saucers provide a low-profile hide that they seem to prefer. We are hoping these habitat changes will improve the animals’ breeding and egg laying potential. Our staff plans to deliver an in-depth presentation about the Sulawesi Forest Turtle habitat modifications at the 16th Annual Symposium on the Conservation and Biology of Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles in Fort Worth, Texas.

Leucocephalon habitats
Female yuwonoi hide

Left: Sulawesi Forest Turtle (Leucocephalon yuwonoi) habitats. Credit: J. Gray  Right: Female Sulawesi Forest Turtle rests beneath new hide tray. Credit: J. Gray

Outside, construction finished on the Cuora Complex II, bringing 90 more enclosures online for the 2018 breeding/egg-laying season. Construction on this initiative began in the fall of 2016, with the majority of the previous off-season’s efforts focused on concrete work—the foundation and the most labor intensive portions of the project. Work this winter focused on enclosure dividers, walkways, plumbing, staining, and applying final touches to get the enclosures animal-ready. Many organizations such as the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Riverbanks Zoo, South Carolina Aquarium, and the U.S. Navy, along with numerous volunteers abroad, have contributed to this project and we are excited that it is on the cusp of completion. Cuora Complex II will predominately house and facilitate managed breeding of Bourret’s (Cuora bourreti), Indochinese (Cuora galbinifrons), and Southern Vietnam Box Turtles (Cuora picturata), as well as some smaller aquatic turtle species such as Beale’s (Sacalia bealei) and Four-eyed Turtles (Sacalia quadriocellata). This area will also serve well for separating and managing our growing population of juvenile turtles bred here. We are extremely grateful to the Barbara Brewster Bonner Charitable Fund for making the Cuora Complex II possible!

Cuora Complex 2

Cuora Compex II provides 90 new enclosures for managed breeding of several species of Asian box turtles. Credit: J. Gray

Another large project for the TSC has been the initiation of our Phase II development. The TSC has experienced exponential growth in the past 4 years and we are nearing the completion of the initial phase of construction. In order to facilitate expansion for Phase II, we must install infrastructure and improve the land for later use. This consists of removing some of the forested land to make space for future buildings, elevating areas to prevent flooding during major climatic events, and installing facilities such as water lines, power lines, etc., that future buildings will tap into. Extensive planning is invested in this step, as it will affect the next decade of construction at the TSC.

Phase 2 clearing 2

Land cleared for the Turtle Survival Center’s Phase II expansion. Credit: N. Haislip

While improvements and additions to our facility are a high-priority during the winter months, the health and well-being of the turtles in the collection remains the highest. Although the climate of coastal South Carolina is mostly sub-tropical, we must take precautions every year to ensure the safety of our animals from cold winter temperatures. Animals that brumate during the winter months receive pre-winter health examinations, as well as routine checks during the season to ensure they’re healthy. To assist us prior to the turtle’s brumative period, local boy scout troop #776 volunteered to prepare the outdoor enclosures for the winter season. With their help, an extensive leaf litter layer was applied to all of the compounds this autumn to insulate the animals from the coming cold.

C. galb in new leaf litter

An Indochinese Box Turtle (Cuora galbinifrons) peers out of the newly placed leaf litter. Credit: N. Haislip

As the rest of the East Coast experienced, we too got our fair share of cold temperatures this winter. A weather system known by meteorologists as “bombogenesis” brought snow, ice, and frigid temperatures to coastal South Carolina the first week of January—something rarely seen in our area. Anticipating the worst, staff took extra precautions such as adding more mulch and leaf litter to the outdoor enclosures, and constantly monitoring indoor and outdoor temperatures to ensure the animals were comfortable during this wintry blast. The TSC is equipped with sensors that notify staff if temperatures reach a certain threshold, giving us a small peace of mind during spells such as this. Generators were at the ready, but luckily, we only suffered a couple of burst water pipes.

Forest Complex Snow

Snow covers the enclosures of the Forest Complex where various species of Southeast Asian species reside. Credit: N. Haislip

Although many of our animals are in brumation during the winter period, it is still a somewhat active breeding season for some of our indoor animals. We have several species that experience a winter breeding season or egg-laying season such as our Hinge-back Tortoises. We also prefer to breed our tropical species such as Forsten’s Tortoises (Indotestudo forstenii) and Sulawesi Forest Turtles at this time, so as to spread out the egg-laying season as much as is in our control. This helps “lighten the load” of the comparatively intense reproductive seasons of spring and summer (April—July). Currently in the incubator, we have 5 clutches of Forsten’s Tortoise eggs, 2 Asian Spiny Turtle eggs, 1 Southern Vietnam Box Turtle egg, and 3 Home’s Hinge-back Tortoise eggs. We still have several Forsten’s Tortoises, Southern Vietnam Box Turtles, another Home’s Hinge-back Tortoise, and a Sulawesi Forest Turtle all with eggs on the way.

L. yuwonoi mating 1

Sulawesi Forest Turtles (Leucocephalon yuwonoi)  mate under supervised conditions in the Sulawesi Greenhouse. Credit: N. Haislip 

With consistently warm temperatures on the way, we will soon have our hands full of chelonian activity. Stay tuned for our spring update from the Turtle Survival Center!