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Hatching Reptile Eggs, Part II
Or, what to do after they hatch!
We posted the article on hatching reptile eggs over a year ago (July 2003) and much to my surprise (and gratification) we've gotten a tremendous response to it. If the generally received wisdom is true that for every written response to a particular posting there are another two hundred readers out there who haven't responded then there are apparently thousands of people out there who are successfully raising reptile eggs which is good. But it seems that I left out a very important part of the article when it was first posted, namely: what do you do with the freshly hatched young? So I'm going to address this glaring omission here ...
No parental care required
You set up your incubator as per the instructions, planted the eggs, misted them occasionally when they looked dry and waited patiently for them to hatch. One fine day in early September you notice that one of the eggs seems to look odd and, upon closer inspection, you notice a tiny head poking out of the shell. Within a day the rest of the eggs begin hatching and the next thing you know there's a gallon jar full of active little turtles, snakes or lizards squirming, crawling and writhing about inside. Your incubation was a success! But what do you do with them now that they're hatched?
Well unlike birds or mammals baby reptiles require no parental care once they leave the egg – they're ready to rock and roll on their own with no instruction from mother required. From the little reptile's point of view the kindest and most humane thing to do is release them back into the wild from whence they came.
Where to release them
Assuming you can identify your tiny charges (a good field guide from the library helps) just release them into the habitat that they frequent as adults. In short put water turtles into water, snakes into field, forest, or stream (depending on species), and lizards into whatever habitat they're most comfortable in. If you're in doubt as to the proper identification or habitat consult your nearest state naturalist at any state park.
Why hatchlings shouldn't be fed
Many people who have written us concerning this problem want to feed the little guys before releasing them into the wild but this is a mistake. All baby reptiles are born with a yolk sac – a remnant of their life in the egg. In the case of turtles this yolk sac is sometimes visible for a short time after birth but in the majority of cases the yolk sac is internal and invisible, though still present. The little reptile will refuse to eat anything until the food in the yolk is completely absorbed – and this can take anywhere from a few days to three weeks. Freshly hatched reptile babies use this time to find a home and get settled in before winter, so keeping them captive during this crucial time is not in the hatchling's best interests.
Another factor favoring early release is that most hatchling reptiles – even those with little or no yolk sac present – will refuse to eat until they shed their skin for the first time – especially hatchling snakes. Again this is best and most easily accomplished if the snake can find the right conditions to do so.
Shedding one's skin (for a reptile) is a delicate operation requiring just the right amount of humidity. Too much humidity and their old skin grows moldy and infected before they can get out of it. Too little humidity and their skin refuses to part company from the old and patches of dead skin remain stuck to their bodies – again risking mold and infection or, in the case of lizards and snakes, blindness. Since humans keep their homes far too dry for most reptiles (even desert reptiles) it's best to let the experts (the reptiles themselves) choose those conditions most favorable to their needs and they can only do this outside where a wide range of choices are available to them.
Let them find a natural place to hibernate
Probably the worst thing you can do is hold onto them over the winter in the mistaken notion that they'll have an easier time indoors than out. Apart from the chores of feeding them, cleaning up after them and generally caring for them all of our reptiles require a period of dormancy (hibernation) to continue their life cycle smoothly. Reptiles kept indoors over winter never get a chance to hibernate and this tends to mess up their internal clocks. While no studies have been done (so far as I know) about this, I'm guessing that it would take at least a year (or two) for their clocks to get reset to normal.
As for mimicking the conditions needed for successfully overwintering temperate zone reptiles in a state of hibernation - well they're far beyond the abilities of the vast majority of amateurs (and most professionals!) and shouldn't even be attempted. Keeping them active all winter poses risks to the hatchlings far beyond any they would encounter in the wild (most refuse to eat and starve to death by February or March). So releasing them into the wild does the least damage and most good for all concerned. Many baby reptiles go into hibernation immediately – some without eating anything at all – after hatching. They use the stored reserves in their yolk sac to get them through the winter and then start their adult lives in the spring.
Chances of survial
Now assuming you've taken this message to heart and released the little fellows close to where you found the eggs, or at least into suitable habitat, what are their chances of growing up after their release? Well pretty good actually. Most reptiles never make it to hatching thanks to the depredations of skunks, raccoons, possums, crows and everything else that finds reptile eggs tasty. Perhaps as much as 90% of the reptile crop is lost to predators while still in their eggs, so if you succeeded in hatching your clutch they've already passed the greatest hurdle in their existence. Since the behavior patterns of baby reptiles are preprogrammed they have a very good chance of growing to maturity once released.
Letting them go
I know from first-hand experience how wrenching it can be to let them go. After all you've invested a lot of time and effort and worry into their successful hatching and now that they're out in the light of day you want to make sure they succeed in the wild - maybe fatten them up, let them grow a little and hone their skills before releasing them into the uncertain wild ... in short you act like any decent parent. But there comes a time in any decent parent's life when the best thing for all concerned is to let your babies go out into the wide world to face its challenges - good and bad. The only difference between baby reptiles and human offspring is that it comes much earlier with reptiles.
So take your successful hatchlings to an appropriate place and, wishing them godspeed, release them.
With luck, in a few years, you'll stumble over another clutch of eggs just like the first and as you incubate these to hatching you can warm yourself with the thought that these are the children or grandchildren of that first clutch you reared years ago ...
The information on this page is tailored to Southern Illinois, Southwest Indiana, Western Kentucky, and Southeast Missouri
Copyright © 2004 Jim Jung