Breeding the Red Eared Terrapin

(Article for 'Proteus' 1993)
Note: the 'Terrapin' is now banned from import into this country. Whilst keeping them is perfectly legal, the owner must consider carefully the implications of breeding such an unwanted reptile. (2002)

It may seem strange, considering the current number of homeless and unwanted terrapins that there are in this country, that I should be writing to a group such as Proteus about the production of yet more of these charming, and yet demanding, reptiles. There are however, reasons behind this apparent madness which in the long run could only be good news for the terrapin.

Firstly, an active cottage industry, supplying young Red Ears to the Reptile Emporiums will deflate the demand for the imported specimen. This is not necessarily good news for the home bred specimens themselves, but at a time when imported terrapins can only be ordered by the hundred, if not the thousand from the wholesalers (not a popular option for the average reptilarium), it could tip the balance against this trade. It is the importation of the Red Ear which must be stopped if we are to conserve the species in the wild. Secondly, for all those people who have terrapins, having either adopted unwanted pets, or who are now on their fifth size of tank, having stuck with their greedy, sometimes smelly, friends throughout, breeding them is an interesting and satisfying option for you all, promoting an improved daily interest in your pet, as well as a greater understanding of the basic drives of these enigmatic animals.

1) HABITAT: A terrapin requires three basic elements to breed successfully:
a) Space to mate. This means that the pool, pond or very large tank provided for them must be deep enough and wide enough for the male to do his stuff. I have found that a 4' by 4' pond, 2' deep in the middle, is the optimum size for an 8" male and two larger females. Other smaller animals can also be housed in the same pond, but egg fertility will decrease if overcrowding occurs.
b) The seasons: The water must follow a seasonal temperature change between summer(75-80 degrees F) and winter(65-70 degrees F). This cues up the female to lay at the correct time. In addition, a weekly cold water partial change does suggest spring time to the male.
c) Basking area: This needs to provide both a hot spotlight for the gravid female to warm her eggs, and a deep sand pit for egg laying. I use a washing up bowl, sunk flush with the basking shelf, filled with dampened silver sand (6-8 inches is minimum if a successful laying is to occur with the larger females), and heated from below with a wine-making demijohn heater. The sand will need to be at least 70 degrees F. before a female will consider it fit for the purpose.

2) FEEDING: Good feeding is essential if the female is to lay quality eggs. Calcium is essential as an added mineral, as well as combined supplements such as vionate or nutrobal. These should be added to the food throughout the year to provide the reserves required for egg production. The food itself should be of a good variety. Fish, fresh or canned meat, and vegetables should all be given. I cheat....... I mix pilchard(10%), catmeat(50%) and mixed fresh vegetables(40%) all together in a liquidiser. I heat the results, add the supplements, mix in gelatine and allow to cool and set. This "jelly" can then be frozen in handy sized pots until required. (2002- I now use 'Wafcol Riteweight' dried dog food, soaked, and with Limestone flour added)

3)BEHAVIOUR: Once the basics have been observed by the careful owner, it is then time to sit back and observe the results:

Phase one: As the temperature in and over the pool warms up from its winter low point, the male (he has the long decorative claws) will begin to court the female. Firstly, he will smell her, often around the rear legs and shell. If she seems to be "in season" he will begin to follow her around, attempting to get in front of her in a face to face position. This often involves some frantic swimming backwards on his part. Once there, he will hold his front legs together and out towards the female, waving his claws energetically in her face. She will either coolly turn and swim away, or painfully bite his toes before departing!
This will go on for some time. Eventually, the finger wiggling act will imobilise or daze the female long enough for the male to position himself on top of her. He continues to wave his claws over her eyes, stretching right out over the bulk of her shell. She will then swim away! Eventually, however, the inevitable occurs, and she remains still long enough for him to stretch in the other direction, and using his tail as a guide, intercourse takes place. This last step is often a nightime activity, taking advantage of the tranquil, sleepy nature of the pool's other occupants.

Phase two: Once a successful mating has occurred, the female will begin to really tuck away the food. She will gain considerably in weight, and will spend longer and longer basking under the lamps. This period will last typically 4-6 weeks. At the end of this time, she will suddenly go off her food entirely, even though she appears otherwise alert and active. Her basking will have, at the same time, reached a sun-dazed peak. She is now ready to lay her eggs.

Phase three: Laying. The female will begin to test the sand for moisture and temperature. She will often put her nose into the sand to do this, and a basking terrapin often gives the game away by being seen with a sandy muzzle. Sometimes a test hole will be dug, but this usually indicates that conditions are not right- otherwise the test would instead have been for real. If this occurs, increase the dampness, and ensure that there is adequate depth available. When everything is right, the female will dig a deep, narrow hole with her back feet, lay 6-12 eggs depending on her size, and cover them up thoroughly, tamping down the sand as she goes. The whole process will take 1-3 hours. She should not be disturbed at this stage.

Phase four: The eggs. If you missed the egg laying, her appetite the next night should alert the careful owner of the situation. Once they have been laid, removal to an incubator is a priority before the eggs begin to dehydrate. Uncovering them must be done carefully, despite the excited tremble in the would be breeder's arm, for the eggs will be soft and leathery, and easily punctured by a finger nail. As each egg is exposed, their tops should be marked with a pencil. The eggs should then remain mark- upermost for the whole incubation period. Wash the eggs in warm water, and place on a bed of SOAKED perlite (inside a small, low sided container). They can then be transferred to the incubator.

Phase five: Incubation. Red Ear eggs require extremely high humidity to hatch successfully. They also need a stable temperature, and plenty of air. Not all of these factors are easy to maintain together! I use a small aquarium(12" by 9"), half filled with water, and heated with an adjustable, submersible heater-thermostat. I support a rigid alloy wire mesh just above the water level using bits of wood, and cover the tank top with a thick slab of polystyrene. The containers of wet perlite and eggs are placed on the mesh. The water temperature should be set to either 80 degrees F., for male hatchlings, or 87-88 degrees F. for females. In between these two extremes provides a mixed sex hatching. (Obviously the air around the eggs will be a few degrees cooler than the water- ensure that it is no worse than 2 degrees. )
Now begins the waiting game. At 80 degrees F., eggs will take 100- 120 days to hatch. At 88 degrees, they will take 60 - 70 days. However, the owner still has a lot to do:
1) Visual checks. Watch the eggs for signs of fertility- the creamy colour turns to white, starting from the top of the egg. A rotten egg will stay a dark yellow, often collapsing in on itself. Remove these latter immediately. Watch for denting- if this occurs increase the humidity (see below) After 3 - 4 weeks, hold the eggs carefully up to a bright light. A fertile egg will show clear signs of blood vessels, bright red against the white.
2) Humidity and fresh air. The eggs should be sprayed with water regularly to maintain the humidity.(at least twice a week, every day if necessary.) This means that the lid is opened for a few seconds- this gives enough fresh air for the developing embryos. Ensure that the perlite stays wet. Refill the containers with water if necessary but do not leave the egg standing in water.

Phase six: Hatching. Eventually, the time will pass, and the eggs will be clearly full of something other than yolk. In the last fortnight, the underside of the eggs often show many small wrinkles and depressions. This is not really 'denting', and should not be sprayed against or else a premature hatching could be caused. When it is ready, the hatchling cuts a hole in the egg with its 'egg tooth' ( a white projection on its nose) in order to breath. The worried owner can enlarge the hole to ensure that its nose is clear from the egg fluids, and that breathing is unobstructed. A further wait of up to 48 hours will now occur before the hatching begins in earnest. Once the baby terrapin's yolk sack is small enough to allow free movement, it will struggle free of the egg. (if it is in difficulties, a helping hand can be given.)

Phase seven: The hatchling. Wash the hatchling in warm water, and place in a clean container containing a little water. Ensure that it can raise its head to breathe, and leave. Once the yolk sack has been fully absorbed, the young fellow will be free swimming enough to be given the full Red Ear treatment: Warm swimming water, a basking rock, vitamin and mineral supplements in the water (until it begins eating at about 2 weeks old), and plenty of attention from a proud owner and breeder.

P.S. A happy female Red Ear can lay up to four clutches per year. So far my four have laid over 50 eggs between them!

Paul Coleman.