The Madagascar big-headed turtle was once widely distributed throughout the rivers and lakes of western Madagascar. However, overexploitation from a growing human population has drastically reduced and fragmented its range. One of the most endangered turtles in the world, this species is included on the Turtle Conservation Fund’s top 25 endangered turtles list and is listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN.
In December, 2005, two male and five juvenile female big-headed turtles were confiscated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and donated to the Houston Zoo. In 2008, these turtles were transferred to the moat surrounding the lemur display at the Zoo’s Wortham World of Primates. In order to keep the turtles outside year-round, a swimming pool heater was installed to keep the moat warm during the winter months. Since these turtles can be aggressive towards each other, underwater boxes fashioned from roofing tiles and bricks were added to the moat so that the turtles could hide in them when needed.
Since the first egg hatched in September 2012, the Houston Zoo has now successfully hatched a total of 17 turtles from three different clutches. The first clutch was laid and five turtles hatched in the lemur habitat inside a special nesting area prepared by the primate keepers. Pictures of these hatchlings were posted on the Houston Zoo’s Facebook page and resulted in over 20,000 likes – the most recorded by any Houston Zoo animal!
The second and third clutches were discovered by Zoo reptile & amphibian staff while they performed routine checks of the nest sites. These eggs were carefully dug up and incubated. A second clutch was discovered on March 5, 2013 – three animals hatched after 76 days on May 19. The third clutch was discovered on June 22 and was divided into two groups. One group resulted in five hatchlings on August 22. The second group was incubated at slightly lower temperatures to see what incubation temperature was most ideal. Four turtles hatched from this group on September 4.
Hatchlings have had an average weight of less than .02 pounds. The average shell measurements were 1.3 inches long and 1 inch wide (that’s a tiny turtle!). The young turtles began feeding immediately on a diet of aquatic turtle pellets and romaine lettuce.
This is believed to be the first time this species has reproduced in an institution accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, so needless to say, we’re pretty excited!