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Basic Housing for Hatchlings


We get the calls for help all the time! "We never thought they'd hatch..... What do we do now?" Fortunately, it is not that difficult to provide a first class environment for hatchlings, of whatever species.

In most cases the items required can be obtained from local sources, with the possible exception of the special lighting systems needed, which may require a visit to a specialist store, or on-line mail-order supplier. This is how we deal with new hatchlings at the Tortoise Trust. In all cases, once the hatchling is fully emerged from the egg, we remove it from the incubator and place it in a suitable container. Do note that it is perfectly normal for hatchlings to 'pip' the egg and remain there without emerging fully for quite some time. During this period they are breathing with their lungs, and are absorbing yolk sac. Do not attempt to 'force' them out of the egg. They have been hatching without human help for millions of years. It will leave when it is ready. Once out, pick it up carefully, and according to type, move to the following recommended environments:

Mediterranean, Leopard, Sulcata and Desert tortoises, etc.

For the basis of the accommodation, we use those plastic 'under-bed' storage trays that you can obtain from most hardware stores. These are excellent. They are relatively cheap, are light in weight, are fairly durable and are easy to clean. They come in various sizes. We use ones measuring approximately 60 cm (2 feet) by 40 cm (15 inches) X 14 cm (6 inches). This provides a good surface area and is about right for a small group of hatchlings. To this, we add a substrate comprising a 50/50 mix of soft 'play' sand and clean loam-based compost, or topsoil. This should be dry, not damp. Aim for a depth of about 6 cm or 1.25 inches. This is important, as it provides extra thermal stability for the babies, and also allows them to bury themselves for security and microclimate purposes. About 40 cm (15 inches) above this tray, slightly to one end, we position a 100 watt UV-V Heat lamp fixture. This provides excellent UV-B, UV-A and visible light output combined with radiant heat for basking. Within the tray we have some small 'huts' for shelter and a fresh, shallow water dish. That's it. No heat pads. No glass tank. No overnight heating. We keep them at normal household room temperature overnight. This might sound too easy, and too straightforward - but it works! Just how simple it is should be clear from the illustration above. Despite its incredible simplicity, and very low cost, this system outperforms every expensive commercial vivarium or terrarium we have seen or tested.

Redfoot, Yellowfoot, Box, and Hingeback tortoises, etc.

We use the same basic design as above, but we modify the sand and soil substrate to a 70/30 peat-type loam and soft sand combination rather than a 50/50 mix, and on top of this we lay about 25mm (1 inch) of moist sphagnum moss. The first later of substrate in this unit is also not quite as deep as for arid species - no more than 12mm (0.5 inches).  Beneath one end we place a 30-watt heat pad covering approximately 50% of the total surface area. If you prefer, you can use damp paper towels as the substrate with very new hatchlings that have a large egg-sac, but although more 'hygienic' looking, it does not provide quite such an ideal environment. Juveniles do like to bury themselves, not just for a sense of security, but also to conserve fluids and to prevent dehydration. Baby box and wood turtles are especially susceptible to such problems. As always, we include a shallow water tray, extra hiding places, and a UV-Heat lamp at a distance of approximately 40 cm (15 inches). With these humid-habitat species, the prevention of dehydration is absolutely critical, so try to maintain air humidity in the 70%+ range at all times. You may find a warm-air type humidifier a great help if you live in a house or locality where air humidity levels are very low. The moist substrate as described above may not be sufficient by itself in such circumstances.

General maintenance

Change the UV-Heat lamp after every 2,000 hours of use. Use a calcium supplement daily. The substrate should be changed every 2-3 weeks, more often if it becomes visibly soiled. Do not place the trays containing juveniles in direct sunlight as critical overheating can occur very rapidly. If you wish to get the juveniles outside when weather permits (which is a very good idea), then construct a separate, secure outdoor pen with a natural substrate and adequate anti-predator protection. The tray systems described above are designed for indoor use only.  

A suitable outdoor unit for Mediterranean hatchlings is shown above. This attractive set-up was designed by Lin King in the UK.

Diet is, of course, critical. See other articles on this website or consult the 'Tortoise and Turtle Feeding Manual' (Carapace Press) for detailed guidance on this subject.


(c) 2001 Andy C. Highfield