The Red-Footed Tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonaria) turning into a pyramid

Thirteen (est.) year old C. carbonaria named 'Casquinha' raised in captivity in Southeast Brazil | Photograph by Alex Bateman

Thirteen (est.) year old C. carbonaria named 'Casquinha' raised in captivity in Southeast Brazil | Photograph by Alex Bateman

Out of all reptiles in existence, tortoises are one of the most widely kept as pets. This is not surprising considering that unlike other reptiles, they are perceived as mostly docile and non-threatening to humans. There's also, of course, the cuteness factor. Unfortunately, humans seem to be just as uninformed regarding their needs and husbandry as they are of any other reptilian order.

Before I start ranting about 'bad humans', let me give you a brief overview of the Chelonoidis carbonaria, commonly known as Red-footed Tortoise. If like me you too grew up in Brazil, the 'Jabuti-Piranga' as most brazilians call them, are not exactly rare. Unfortunately, as expected of such a successfully captive kept species, wild populations are decreasing due to loss of habitat and the capture of wild individuals to meet the demands of the exotic pet trade.

Thirteen year old C. carbonaria named 'Casquinha' raised in captivity | Photograph by Caio Biasoli

Thirteen year old C. carbonaria named 'Casquinha' raised in captivity | Photograph by Caio Biasoli

Their habitat varies from rain forests to savanna areas and they can be found through most of northern South America (though going as far south as Rio de Janiero in eastern Brazil), Central America and the Caribbean - where they have been introduced to many of the islands.  Although there's a lack of data to confirm an average lifespan, both males and females reach sexual maturity at around 5 years old. They are diurnal and rather sedentary compared to other species. Although their diet consists mainly of fruits and flowers, they are also known to consume dead and living foliage as well as carrion. As there's a lack of data on their lifespan, it is difficult to specify the size this species can reach. However, sexual dimorphism has been observed, with males being larger than females. If you'd like to know more about morphological variations and sexual dimorphism in C. carbonaria, I have included a great paper published in the Brazilian Journal of Biology in my references below - the paper was published in English and Brazilian Portuguese. It is worth noting that the C. carbonaria is more widely spread in the wild than its counterpart C. denticulada. The paper I mentioned above covers both species. 

Casquinha, a C. carbonaria raised in captivity estimated to weigh 4-5 kg at age 13 | Photograph by Alex Bateman

Casquinha, a C. carbonaria raised in captivity estimated to weigh 4-5 kg at age 13 | Photograph by Alex Bateman

In Brazil, for instance, the C. carboaria is protected by IBAMA (the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources). The sale and breeding of the species is restricted and you could receive a hefty fine for keeping it without the correct documentation. Despite the protection, they are still widely kept as pets illegally. As expected, they end up receiving a pretty pore excuse for 'care' in the hands of most humans. 

As is unfortunately the case with most pet reptiles, many captive kept C. carbonaria suffer from calcium deficiencies and metabolic bone disease (MBD) as well as parasites (internal and external) and respiratory infections. Sean McCormack MVB wrote a very good blog post a while ago highlighting the importance of understanding how to care for your pet tortoise prior, during and after the hibernation period.

Healthy wild C. carbonaria with no signs of carapace pyramiding | Photograph taken by Dr Steve Barten

Healthy wild C. carbonaria with no signs of carapace pyramiding | Photograph taken by Dr Steve Barten

As is the case with most pet tortoises, the C. carbonaria can also suffer from shell rot and something called 'carapace pyramiding'. I wanted to focus a bit on the latter. If you look at the three images above, especially the one used as the header for this post, you will notice that the carapace of the C. carbonaria I am holding is forming little pyramids. This is something that occurs in many captive kept tortoises and is not reversible. Although most cases, unless extreme, don't pose much of problem for the tortoise, it does give an indication of the conditions in which the tortoise is being kept as well as its diet. In fact, the effects of overfeeding and a high protein intake have been extensively discussed when it comes to the occurrence of pyramiding in tortoises. If you look at the image of the wild C. carbonaria to the right, you will notice that this adult shows no signs of pyramiding. 

The reason I am focusing so much on the 'Pyramiding' issue is that it can be clearly observed in the C. carbonaria individual shown in the first three photographs. The photographs, in fact, clearly illustrate what I observed to be one of the biggest problems with the husbandry 'techniques' being applied to the little red-footed tortoise - the diet. You see, compared to other captive tortoises, this individual has a pretty good life. It has space, seems to be pretty comfortable with its 'territory' and is bathed often to address the lack of humidity issue. However, it also has lots of company. From other tortoises, you might ask? Well, no. It has lots of company from cats. In fact, if I were to anthropomorphise this little tortoise, I would say that it even thinks that it is a cat. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't mind that too much. However, when all it eats is cat food, the pyramiding issue becomes a lot clearer. I mentioned before that these tortoises' diet in the wild is made up mostly of fruits and flowers right? If you have a cat, just have a quick look at the back of the package of their dry food and focus on the level of protein it contains. Now, imagine this 13 year old individual, being fed cat food for almost its entire life. Sad, I know.

Nonetheless, unaware of just how bad its diet is, this individual seems pretty damn happy. And why wouldn't it be? It is essentially the leader of its own aristocats gang, it gets to bathe everyday AND has a human shell tickler at its disposal. For this little guy named 'Casquinha' (translated 'little shell'), life doesn't get much better than that. 'Heroes in a half shell, turtle power!'...well, tortoise power...

References & Sources:

  • Sean McCormack MVB's Blog Post: https://exoticpetvetblog.wordpress.com/2014/10/07/163/
  • Barros, MS., Resende, LC., Silva, AG. & Ferreira Junior, PD. (2012). Morphological variations and sexual dimorphism in Chelonoidis carbonaria and Chelonoidis denticulada. Brazilian Journal of Biology 72:153-161.
 

The Goliath Frog (Conraua goliath)

Biologist Claude Miaud swabbing skin to determine presence of Chytrid fungus on a Goliath Frog | Photograph by Cyril Ruoso/Minden Pictures/Solent News & Photo Agency

Biologist Claude Miaud swabbing skin to determine presence of Chytrid fungus on a Goliath Frog | Photograph by Cyril Ruoso/Minden Pictures/Solent News & Photo Agency

The Conraua goliath is one of those species that most people with no interest in amphibians will have heard of because of its size. The 'biggest frog' factoid being an almost must for any pub quiz...or perhaps more realistically, for any pub quiz I would certain enjoy.

I decided to write about it due to a dream. Yes, that's right, a dream. Not long ago I dreamt that I found a large C. goliath specimen in my garden and I was over the moon about it. I mean, a living and breathing Goliath Frog in my garden! In England! The downside of this dream was that in it, I was the only person able to see the frog. The dream version of my husband couldn't see it at all...oh, the frustration! The next day, I was telling my friend Steven Allain about my strange dream. Realistically, he's one of the only people in my day-to-day life who would truly appreciate the frustration that my dream self was experiencing. We got talking about C. goliath and I then decided that I would write a post about it. Why not? If I believed in such things, I would say the dream was a sign and all that. So, here it it.

C. goliath tadpole | Photograph by Steve Atkin

C. goliath tadpole | Photograph by Steve Atkin

Most people will know that the C. goliath - commonly known as the Goliath Frog or Giant Slippery Frog - is the largest species of living frog on the planet. Records show that adults average at around 12 inches in length and 3 kg in weight. Curiously, although the adults of the species are carnivores, the tadpoles are herbivores. In fact, the C. goliath tadpole's early diet is rather restricted and made up mainly of the Diacraeia warmingii plant. Unfortunately, as the range of this plant is limited, the spread of the C. goliath in the wild is also restricted to parts of Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon. As adults, however, the C. goliath's size means that almost anything is a potential meal. A  few sources indicate that a researcher has found evidence of bats in the contents of a captured C. goliath individual's stomach. However limited the evidence may be, it does suggests that these frogs are able to catch bats to begin with...considering that this species can leap up to 10 feet, catching bats becomes a somewhat more believable feat.

Vendor showing his available C. goliath collection for sale in Cameroon | Photograph taken from The African Gourmet's website

Vendor showing his available C. goliath collection for sale in Cameroon | Photograph taken from The African Gourmet's website

Unlike most frog species, the males are usually bigger than the females. This may help explain another unusual characteristic of the species - males do not possess nuptial pads. Nuptial pads in male frogs are used to facilitate the grasping of the female during mating. Another curiosity in their biology is that although they have an acute sense of hearing, they do not possess vocal cords. Therefore, they do not produce sounds during the mating season as many other species of frogs do. C. goliath males will instead create round pools of shallow water by riverbanks and wrestle each other for the right to mate.

Their short mating season ranges from July to August and females will lay hundreds of eggs. Unlike other frog species, these eggs will receive no protection from the parents and the surviving tadpoles will take between 85-95 days to metamorphose into frogs. They rarely breed in the wild and captive breeding is unfortunately, also rarely successful. Furthermore, the Goliath Frog's meat is part of the diet of many African tribes and considered a delicacy by local people. Combined with the hunt for wild individuals in order to meet the demand of the pet trade, you will not be surprised to hear that this species is listed as endangered. 

To address this issue, Dr. Gonwouo Nono LeGrand and his team at the Cameroon Herpetology-Conservation Biology Foundation (CAMHERP-CBF) are working to tackle the threat of over-harvesting as well as habitat loss. The Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) also supports the work being carried out by the CAMHERP-CBF and helps spread the word about their efforts. It is lovely to see businesses getting involved. A great example is Vancouver based company,  Goliath Coffee, that sources all of its coffee from Cameroon showing its support for the cause. They even have an entire section of their website dedicated to it - check it out.  

If like me, you too like reading about this amazing frog, I have listed my main sources below. If you know of any other major projects aimed at the conservation of the Conraua goliath, do let me know! I'd love to hear from you. 

References & Sources:

  • Mikula, P. (2015). Fish and Amphibians as Bat Predators. European Journal of Ecology 1:66-75.
  • Soulsby, D. (2013). Animal Cannibalism: The Dark Side of Evolution. Sheffield, 5m Publishing.
  • Mattison, C. (2014). Nature Guide: Snakes and Other Reptiles and Amphibians. London, Dorling Kindersley.
  • Halliday, T. (2016). The Book of Frogs: A Life-Size Guide to Six Hundred Species From Around the World. Lewes, Ivy Press. 
  • Attenborough, D. (2008). Life in Cold Blood: A Natural History of Amphibians and Reptiles. BBC Books.
  • Dorcas, M. & Gobbons, W. (2011). Frogs: The Animal Answer Guide. Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Beltz, E. (2005). Frogs: Inside Their Remarkable World. New York, Firefly Books.
 

The Very Endearing Common Toad (Bufu bufo)

Common Toad (Bufo bufo) found in Krizevci, Slovenia | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Common Toad (Bufo bufo) found in Krizevci, Slovenia | Photograph by Talita Bateman

If you are lucky enough to have ever witnessed a wild common toad hunting, you will understand what I mean when I say that they are pretty endearing creatures. They have an incredibly entertaining 'walking' style that never fails to make me laugh.

Towards the end of my trip to Slovenia, I encountered the most gorgeous common toad specimen. As I was not actively searching for this species, it was a really nice surprise - mostly because the encounter reminded me just how much I enjoy observing them. 

The toad showed up in the garden of the place where we were staying. It had rained quite a lot during the day and by 8:30 that evening, the garden looked like a slug & snail fest. The toad was too busy hunting snails and slugs to realise that I had already spotted it and was close enough to pick it up without much effort... not that common toads are difficult to capture under normal circumstances but it makes for a nice tale.

Common Toad (Bufo bufo) found in Krizevci Slovenia

Common Toad (Bufo bufo) found in Krizevci Slovenia

Not long after I picked it up, the toad (understandably frightened) released water from its water bladder. This prompted my surprised (and slightly disgusted) husband to jump three feet away from me and say 'Oh no, it's peed on you'. This defense mechanism is fairly common and although it isn't exactly the same as actual urine, the 'peeing on you' seems like the easiest way to explain it.  

You will notice in these two photographs (sorry for the bad quality!) that I am wearing gloves to handle the toad. Let me firstly clear things up - you CANNOT get warts from handling toads (yes, some people really do ask that question). The real reason I am wearing gloves is to protect the toad from any harmful chemicals I most likely had on my hands and NOT to protect myself. As I mentioned before, the encounter was a surprise and although you cannot see it in the photographs, I was pretty sunburnt. I knew that my hands were covered in body lotion and, as amphibians have permeable skin, in order to protect the little toad, I put on the first pair of gloves that I could find. Obviously, they weren't the best fit but they did the trick.

Underside colouration and markings of the same Common Toad (Bufo bufo) individual

Underside colouration and markings of the same Common Toad (Bufo bufo) individual

A curious fact about the common toad is that they can actually secret large amounts of a distasteful white substance from their skin when threatened - although this doesn't seem to affect some predators such as Grass Snakes. Their eggs and tadpoles are also thought to be distasteful - a fact that is believed to contribute to its successful survival rate when compared to other amphibian species. It is also likely to somewhat explain the wide range of locations in which the species can be found. 

Unfortunately, this species tends to be attacked by Flesh Flies (Lucilia bufonivora) - its latin name is certainly a clue! The fly lays its eggs on the toad's skin and once the eggs hatch, the little maggots will often enter the toad's body via its nose and eat the toad from within. Quite the image huh?!

On a lighter note, the good news is that this species is not very difficult to find. If you are in the UK, depending on where you live, you can even encounter it in your own garden! If you go looking for them, try and remember a couple of important things: 1) Common Toads are nocturnal! 2) Record your sightings!

Common Toad (Bufo bufo) found in Krizevci, Slovenia | Photograph by Talita Bateman

Common Toad (Bufo bufo) found in Krizevci, Slovenia | Photograph by Talita Bateman