Nature Mikey

Nature Mikey

Friday, April 22, 2011

Species of the Day: Bell's Hingeback Tortoise

Scientific Name: Kinixys belliana
Family: Testudinidae
Adult size: 7 to 8 1/2 inches; 2 to 4 pounds
Range: Central and southern Africa from southern Senegal to Mozambique and the eastern corner of South Africa. Introduced in northern Madagascar
Habitat: Moist woodlands to dry savannah grasslands

    The Bell's hingeback tortoise has become quite a popular species in captivity, unfortunately the vast majority of specimens available for sale are imported and wild-caught animals have proven difficult to establish in captivity, making for very few captive breeders of these tortoises. So called for the hinge in the rear third of the carapace, it is the smaller of the African tortoises, with adults measuring up to 8 1/2 inches and weighing in at up to 4 pounds. Adult males have a much longer tail than females. The preferred habitat of a Bell's tortoise is savannah and grasslands, although they can sometimes be found in moister forests. As these areas may exhibit strong seasonal changes in precipitation and temperatures, the activity of the tortoises may be restricted to particular times of the year. In South Africa, for example, the Bell's hingeback may become during the cool winter months of May through September. Such seasonal patterns are likely important for the fertility and life-span of the species.
    A healthy hingeback should feel heavy and solid; a tortoise that feels hollow or light is likely dehydrated and malnourished. Hingebacks may be very shy so patience and gentle handling is necessary to allow inspection of the head and limbs. They eyes should be open and clear, or should open within seconds of being picked up. Eyes that are swollen or sealed shut may indicate dehydration or conjunctivitis; the nostrils should also be clear. Any nasal discharge should raise suspicion of a possible respiratory infection. Because most will be wild-caught specimens, Bell's hingebacks are often highly parasitized and as such, should have its feces evaluated by a veterinarian and put on a good de-parasitizing program. Hingebacks often need prolonged and repeated treatments to completely eradicate parasite infestations. The skin should be thoroughly inspected for ticks, mites, swellings or lacerations. The shell may have a variety of injuries, some of which may be old and healed and others being active areas for infection. If possible the tortoises mouth should be opened and the tongue and palate should be inspected for lesions and signs of infection. Of all the areas indicative of the tortoises health, appetite is most important. A healthy tortoise should have a huge appetite and eagerly accept pretty much anything offered.
     After acquisition, hingebacks may take weeks or even months to become acclimated. It is best to house new hingebacks in simple setups; aquariums or plastic tubs work very well, and should be at least four times the length and twice as wide as the length of the animal. A simple substrate such as paper towel and newspaper is best, and a hide box should be provided for security. Basking spot temperatures should range fro 85 to 95 degrees during the day and be allowed to fall between 70 and 80 at night. UV light will also be of benefit to the proper growth and health of the tortoise. Bell's hingebacks seem most active and have fewer eye and respiratory ailments if kept between 60 to 90% humidity, which can be maintained with misting the enclosure.
    The natural diet of the Bell's hingebacks includes both plant and animal matter such as fallen fruits, grasses, snails and other invertebrates. New tortoises often accept strawberries, cantaloupe and earthworms as their first food items. It may take several weeks for a new arrival to begin eating regularly. Fresh water should be provided at all times in a water dish big enough for the tortoise to soak in. Once the tortoise is accepting one or two food items regularly, it should be gradually converted to a more varied diet. By thoroughly mixing new foods with previously accepted items, even stubborn specimens can be encouraged to eat them. A complete diet for a Bell's hingeback should include high-calcium, leafy greens such as dandelion, clover, escarole, chicory, kale, etc.; a good fiber source such as lawn clippings (no pesticides), alfalfa or timothy hay; a variety of fruits and vegetables, and animal protein such as earthworms and other insects. A powdered calcium supplement should be applied to the food everyday, and a powdered multivitamin once a week.
    Once established on a good diet and free of parasites, Bell's hingebacks may be set up in a more naturalistic environment. If kept in groups, several hide boxes will be needed. A mixture of soil and bark mulch is visually appealing as a substrate, and the tortoises will enjoy burrowing in it. The substrate should be changed weekly. Take care that feeding stations should be set up to where there will be no accidental ingestion of the substrate. Alternatively and preferentially, outdoor enclosures may be used if you live in temperate climates. It must be appropriately built as Bell's hingebacks are great climbers and burrowers. When outdoors the tortoises are most active during the dawn and dusk hours, retreating to shady areas during the hot parts of the day. The only mid-day activity has been seen after or during spring rainfalls.

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