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"Hatchling Failure Syndrome"

Discussion in 'Debatable Topics' started by Tom, Feb 10, 2011.

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  1. Tom

    Tom The Dog Trainer 5 Year Member Platinum Tortoise Club

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    I've heard this term for many years and I don't like it. Its a way to excuse our ignorance and failure. I will agree that an occasional hatchling is born that is just not going to make it no matter what anybody does, but MOST of them, if they make it full term and hatch, SHOULD survive and thrive, IF they are cared for PROPERLY. Lots of key words in that last sentence. The few hatchlings that just aren't going to make it are never quite "right". These are usually recognizable right off the bat. This post is mostly about "desert" species. Sulcatas, Leopards, CA Desert Torts, etc... Most other species are housed more correctly as hatchlings and so avoid this problem.

    Here are the symptoms: Everything seems fine for weeks or months with your newly acquired hatchling and then their appetite drops a little and they hide or sleep a little more. Then the shell starts feeling a little softer than you remember. Then the eyes don't want to open and the lethargy really sets in. Eating stops or is greatly reduced. Usually the hatchling has barely grown even when they make it through this period for several months. The shell ends up feeling "squishy" and sometimes changes color a little. Within a week or two of this, they usually die. No amount of time or money spent seems to stop this process once it gets to a certain point.

    In the past, this has been explained with the term "Hatchling Failure Syndrome". The implication being that its nobodies fault and this just happens sometimes. *This is where the fireworks start.* Most people want to blame the death on the newbie who went out and impulse bought the cute little baby sulcata without knowing what they were doing. This MIGHT be part of the explanation SOME of the time. In my experience this accounts for a very small number of hatchling deaths. Usually with an ignorant impulse buyer, you see poor diet, no UV and temps are too cold. I think this accounts for a very small percentage of first time owners. Most of the time they are doing things pretty well. The minor errors that a newbie might make would NOT cause the above symptoms in most cases. This is especially true of all the great newbies that have found us here at TFO. They are almost always doing it "right".

    So what does cause it? IN MY OPINION, based on all of my professional experience with "desert" species of tortoises over the last 20 some odd years, this is caused by the person who hatches them out and then puts them into a "beef jerky maker" style set up. You know what I'm talking about. Rabbit pellets. No water bowl. No hides. Certainly no humid hides. Hot, desiccating basking bulb. They claim to soak them "a couple of times a week". I doubt that most of them do. Tiny hatchlings are very susceptible to dehydration in a very short time. Even overnight. This chronic dehydration permanently damages their internal organs including their kidneys and liver. Part of the confusion over all of this is due to the fact thats its impossible to tell (without necropsy) just how dry an individual baby tortoise has been or just how damaged his internal organs are. Some of them just barely make it through and then as NEW liver and kidney cells begin to slowly grow they start to grow and thrive. My Daisy is an example of one of these. She hardly grew at all for the first two and a half years and now she's sprouting. She made it "over the hump". Most of them survive and seem fine for a while. Sometimes months. They eat, drink, bask, explore, and act completely normal. They show no external signs that their organs are nearly dead inside and they are a ticking time bomb. Slowly the symptoms described in the second paragraph above begin to surface. The new owner recognizes there is a problem and asks for help, but tragically, it was too late before they even brought their baby home. EVERY single time I have seen the above symptoms, EVERY TIME, the tortoise came from a dry set up with no water bowl and no humidity.

    From the breeders point of view, he or she has been doing it this way for years. Sometimes decades. They think if an occasional baby dies months after the sale because some noob didn't do things right, that its not their fault. After all, the babies were all fine at their place. Not a single one died or showed any sign of sickness. Surely something that happens weeks or months later has nothing to do with them. WRONG!!! "Hatchling Failure Syndrome" should be called " Breeder Failed To Keep Them Hydrated Syndrome" or "Beef Jerky Maker Syndrome". One way or another, we HAVE to get the word out to the breeders of the world. If they won't listen then we need to put them out of business by not buying their product. The reptile market is very customer driven. Customers have all the power to change this. If you are in the market for a new baby tortoise, ask the breeder how they are housed and cared for. DON'T buy one from the "keep them dry" folks AND tell them why you are not buying from them. They WILL change and consider their errors when it starts hurting their bottom line. There are lots of us out there doing it right. Find one of us. Help your friends and family find one of us. Now I'm not advocating that babies all be kept in a super humid, covered swamp. I'm simply saying to throw down some damp mulch, a water bowl and a humid hide. That's all. So simple. Mulch is cheaper than rabbit pellets anyway!

    I expect this to be controversial and that's why its in the debatable section. Please understand that I do not make these bold assertions lightly. I did not just make this up and call it fact. I was in the retail pet market for eight years. I did one year of wholesale. I've been a reptile pet owner continually since 1979. Animal husbandry has been my passion since I was a little boy and my career since 1986. I have seen and experienced a lot "stuff" over all those years. It was, and still is, MY JOB to help customers overcome health, behavior and husbandry issues with their animals. I'm NOT saying I know everything. Far from it. In fact, I'm very well aware of how much I DON'T know, and it frustrates me daily. I want the blame placed where it ought to be so that we can solve this easily solvable problem.
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    I flat out knew that you were gonna talk about this after our discussion about it this morning...:)
    BUT...my sister has been involved in tortoise and turtle rescue for over 30 years, me not that long and for most of those 30 years she has kept her tortoises on rabbit pellets. When I first started head-starting her babies I kept them on rabbit pellets also. I did it because that what I was taught. However, she also taught me because we keep them on 'slow-cook' under those very hot lights we need to soak them daily. So that's what I did, I soaked them every day faithfully. And nobody died. I can't remember now, why or when I switched the babies over to orchid bark. But nobody died. Now I guess I need to qualify that I am talking about Gopherus Agassizii not Geochelone sulcata. So maybe my opinion here doesn't matter, but I've never let that stop me. I have head-started over 100 babies for her. I really don't know how many exactly, but only 1 group/clutch has died. When I got them they were already soft and you could see liquid under the plastron, all 6 died. But those are the only ones who have died, so basically none of the babies I personally head started have died.
    I have gotten other babies who were soft but I over loaded them with liquid calcium and they lived. I raised 4 Sulcata. None of whom were pyramided. I started keeping my babies humidt BT (before Tom) Tom doesn't push it as much as I do, but I believe it takes 4 things to prevent pyramiding, a good and varied diet, lots of exercise, strong UVB rays or sun and lots of humidity. 80% humidity is what I believe in. If you miss out on 1 of those 4 things you get a pyramided animal. Of the 4 Sulcata that I raised, 1 got blinded, 1 died, 1 I adopted out to save and then there's Bob. None of them are pyramided. Bob is a little but he was already 5 when I got him and he had little peaks then.
    The Gopherus don't get pyramided like Sulcata do, they get bumpy like box turtles do. None of my Gopherus babies are bumpy. I keep my desert babies just like ya'll do your Sulcata and mine are smooth as heck. Since I got Bob his carapace is smoothing out very nicely.
    I don't believe in keeping Sulcata hatchlings drippy wet like Tom does. I think if he would soak them daily and keep 80% humidity he would have smooth babies just like if they were sopping wet. I think it's the hydration that prevents the pyramiding. And those 4 things; diet, exercise, UVB and humidity...80% humidity and soaking. If you soak them daily like I was taught they stay hydrated and that's the key...In daily soaking they get to take a drink and some fluid soaks in thru the cloaca and that keeps them hydrated. I keep the water above the bridge so possibly they are forced to drink. I see other keepers barely have any water in the container at all saying "if he's thirsty he'll drink" I keep a lot of water in the container so they almost drown, they have to drink.
    Anyhow, rather than keeping a sopping baby I just make sure they are well hydrated and monitor those 4 important things, and over 100 babies and only 1 group dead...
  3. CtTortoiseMom

    CtTortoiseMom New Member 5 Year Member

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    I cannot imagine the horror of watching a baby deteriorate like that, and to be unable to help them. "Beef Jerky Maker Syndrome"!! Powerful stuff Tom.
  4. Tom

    Tom The Dog Trainer 5 Year Member Platinum Tortoise Club

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    It kills me just having to watch others go through it. Its so easy to prevent and nobody has to go through it. That's my intention for posting this topic. I would like to see an end to the hot, dry dehydrated thing. Most breeders figure that it works for them, so why change. They don't understand the problems that it causes months later. They don't under stand the minor tweaks that will prevent it. Some of them just "know it all" and don't want to hear it. I say stop giving them money for potentially compromised animals and instead support their competitors who do it right.
  5. methos75

    methos75 New Member 5 Year Member

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    I think even baby torts and turtles if kept right from the beginning do fine, as Tom stated its how you care for them at first that matters. I hatched a Baby RES out last may that was completely Eyeless and had a deformed shell and should of not survived, but due to me working around his limitations as far as diet goes he is still thriving. He is noticeably smaller than his clutch mates are now which I presumed is due to his genetics since he eats as much as they do, gets his UVB in, and is very active, but other than that he has been a great little turtle.
    Randi likes this.
  6. Edna

    Edna New Member 5 Year Member

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    I'd like to see breeders keep longitudinal data on their clutches, like status of the torts at 6 months, at 12 months, etc. And them maybe share that data, too. If you could compare such data and show a significantly higher thrive rate after 12 months, your point would be easily proved. I doubt anyone with low thrive rates would reveal their data, though.
  7. t_mclellan

    t_mclellan New Member 10 Year Member! 5 Year Member

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    Hi Tom;
    It's been some time since we've talked.
    "Hatchling Failure Syndrome".
    I agree with much of what you said but (& I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir here)
    There is more to it than that.
    It can also be brought about by an (unrealized) improper incubation program / method.
    Temp. & Hum. during incubation cause both visible & unseen.
    Most people on here are aware of the VISIBLE effects of improper incubation.
    Split scutes & worse.
    There are also internal organ malformation & neurological effects as well.
    There has been a lot of research done on this subject, But few (overall) with tortoises.
    These unseen factors are irreversible & (on occasion) can cause death years after hatching.
    Environmental fluctuation is the key here. The Hi, Low & Mean temp. are very important.

    Shoot me an e-mail if you would like some leisurely reading material (did I leisurely?).
    My e-dress is my TFO screen name @ yahoo.com.
    I have 20 or so papers on the subject or at least touch on it. 1 on Green Turtles and another on Black Rat Snakes I think covered the subject well.

    Don't expect an instant reply as I'm "On The Road Again"!!!
    I'm writing this waiting for a flight from NYC to Chicago, I'm kinda non stop work until the end of march & some of it will bring me to San Bernardino again.
  8. Cfr200

    Cfr200 Active Member 5 Year Member

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    I don't think all the tortoises die, it depends on how bad they were chronically dehydrated. I have only been keeping 2 Sulcata hatchlings for a short time since June, but I do see it in my pair. When I got them they both weighed the same, they were kept the same after I got them and one grows like a weed and the other just grows very slowly. They both get soaked and sprayed the same one just does much better than the other. I first thought one was bullying the other so I separated them this made no difference. What I think now is one did not get proper care before I got her. She is less than half the weight of the other now 200g compared to 421g.
    I think this idea is correct, but I just don't think it kills all of the ones who got the wrong treatment. What I do think is that it does damage that can never be fixed. My Ethel will live but I do not think she will be as healthy or large as the other one. I think we also might be dealing with what they call Failure to Thrive in children Some hatchlings are not meant to live. In the wild they would not make it more than a few days, in the hands of caring individuals they make it a few weeks or a few months. It is sad, but that is why clutches are large.
    I do think that if they are treated properly at the start we can eliminate a lot of the issues that Tom is talking about.
  9. Tom

    Tom The Dog Trainer 5 Year Member Platinum Tortoise Club

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    This is exactly what I'm doing. I'll be doing it with this years babies that are cooking now. I intend to start them right and then I want to sell some of them to forum members after they have doubled their birth weight. In selling them to established forum members, I should be able to track their progress even after they leave me.[hr]
    Thanks for chiming in Tom. You just let me know when you are in the area again and you've got a hot home cooked meal waiting for you.

    [hr]
    You are certainly right about not all of them dying. That's part of where the confusion comes from. There is no way to tell just how bad, or not so bad, the damage really is. So if 4 die and 16 live, the breeder thinks "well, those 4 had 'Hatchling Failure Syndrome' and weren't meant to survive". BS! Or they say, "well, that noob didn't take proper care of it. It was fine when it left here." This is only true a small fraction of the time.

    BTW, There is nothing wrong with either of yours. Your 421 grammer is on the very high end of the normal growth range. Your 200 grammer is right in the middle of the normal growth range. If you had one that was still 40 grams at 8 months old, THEN you would clearly have a problem. The size difference you are seeing is pretty common and if yours have grown that much in such a short time, then you are taking great care of them and they made it through the "hatchling" phase with no problems. The HFS ones we are discussing above usually don't grow much at all, even if they make it for several months.
  10. Laura

    Laura Well-Known Member 10 Year Member! 5 Year Member

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    I would guess that MANY do die.. for as many babies that are bought and sold vs the amount of adults out there.. Yes there are many,, and rescues have them all the time.. but not in the numbers that should be if they all survived.
    If we fix the problem, and they all survive.. it starts another problem.. vicious circle! but one Id rather have then a bunch of dieing suffereing torts..
  11. exoticsdr

    exoticsdr Member 5 Year Member

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    Tom, I'm always so happy to read your posts because you don't beat-around-the-bush, I use the same approach when dealing with very serious issues with my clients and their babies and always try to give as thorough an explanation in layman's terms as possible. One thing that I want to stress, and it deals with the internal damage done to organ systems on these babies and it does happen quickly. Liver damage is reversible (to a point)....I like to tell my clients, dont feel too badly for someone that is in liver failure from alcohol abuse...they basically had to "kick-the-crap" out of their liver to make it give up.....the liver regenerates and repairs itself very efficiently, but it's not totally foolproof and there are limits and those limits are dictated by how healthy that liver is at birth and how well it is taken care of during life. The kidneys are a totally different creature, the kidneys CANNOT regenerate, there is no formation of cells to replace damaged cells. The kidneys have a different strategy, theY COMPENSATE. The individual filtering units, called nephrons, take on the job of the destroyed nephrons and become what is known as Supernephrons. These work their little tails off until they can no longer keep up with the wastes being filtered or until they eventually wear out. Not that you all needed a physiology lesson, but just wanted to stress the absolute importance of your lessons, we need to PREVENT damage in the first place to give these little ones a fighting chance. Thanks again, my friend, and keep those words of wisdom coming. DOC
  12. Cfr200

    Cfr200 Active Member 5 Year Member

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    Tom I agree with you. All I am trying to say this is more like a spectrum disorder than a specific result every time. Some of these hatchlings die right off others suffer for weeks or months and then pass away. Then there are others that are always going to be smaller and not as active. This is were Ethel falls, she is not very active, she moves only to eat, sleep under her MVB(it is winter here), or is in her hide. She also is lumpy, but the other one is active wanders all over and is as smooth as can be. I do not know their exact ages, Ethel might be much older than I think, i just don't know, because I did not know the correct questions to ask when I bought them. I just used the information I found in books, that were outdated because they said to keep them hot and dry. It was not until I had them a few days did I start looking for sites online and found out different.
    I just think that keeping the hatchlings dry and without water causes many more problems than just death. I think the internal damage that is done never heals completely , so the ones that do survive never recover fully. They are always limited, because a lot of their energy goes into over coming their internal problems so less goes into being available to grow or be active.
    What we need to do is educate people who buy these animals as pets, so they know what to look for and ask about before they buy one. I think this is only way to stop these bad breeding practices. The more people that ask the right questions the quicker this issue will become a thing of the past.
  13. Balboa

    Balboa New Member 5 Year Member

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    Great statement Tom.
    Honestly, I think you're spot on. I'll try to break it all down anyways, as I do think it can be a complex issue.

    Incubation:
    Tom M. brings up a good point. Things could go drastically wrong right here at the beginning. Those studies should be some good reading. One of the things that's troubled me for a while is that mother nature can be a very irratic thermostat at times, so why should it be so critical in the incubator? Well the earth those eggs are buried in provides a heck of a ballast. Seems to me that the average temp would still be considerably lower than normally used in incubation. Are torts being damaged by rushing incubation? Is diapause more necessary than previously thought? Day night temp fluxes, etc. I've read suggestions that these things produce stronger babies, though some claim lower hatch rates. Maybe the FTV babies are weeded out then.

    Babies:
    I think the majority of torts today spend their entire lives battling the jerky maker. The smaller the tort, the tougher the fight. It only stands to reason this is a critical stage to get things right.

    Juveniles:
    This is likely the only area I differ from you somewhat. The jerky-making doesn't stop at the breeder.

    -the average Joe doesn't understand the variables that go into reproducing an "ideal" environment. Even long-term active and successful breeders on this board do not. They may THINK they're doing it right, report to those helping them on this board in such a way as we THINK they're doing it right, and still not be anywhere close.

    What this means is that it can be tough to pin-point the specific breakdown that killed the tort, we're playing clue here.

    Was it the breeder in arizona with the substrate?
    Was it the buyer in washington with the heat lamp?
    Was it mother nature in the egg with a faulty chromosome?

    Chances are they all contribute a part. If any one excels at their care it may help overcome defficiencies done by others in the chain, but it won't ensure success every time.
  14. Tom

    Tom The Dog Trainer 5 Year Member Platinum Tortoise Club

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    Doc, the thing that I always try to explain is that the liver or kidneys on a 150 pound adult are going to be A LOT larger than the liver or kidneys on a 32 gram hatchling, so, if they survive long enough, new liver and kidney cells will grow. I think this is the point that Daisy has reached. She survived the damaged stage and now her body has grown new cells that are properly hydrated and functioning well.[hr]
    Cfr, were on the same page here. Thanks.[hr]
    Balboa, nice to hear from you. You're right about it applying to more than just hatchlings, but that does seem to be the most critical point. I think the ones that are defective for reasons other than human error are few and far between. They do occur, but not very often.

    During the TTPG conference we received a very technical lecture on incubation. The showed the temps inside the egg chamber of a North American turtle species and on a daily basis it went from the low fifties to the mid 130's. 51-139 degrees fahrenheit. Daily. We were all a little shocked and amazed. Apparently lot of temp fluctuation with in the nest is NOT uncommon in nature.
    itiswhatitis and Ginn like this.
  15. ALDABRAMAN

    ALDABRAMAN KEEPER AT HEART 5 Year Member

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    Tom is great and very dedicated to his programs. Thank goodness we have individuals like him that share information and experiences. I agree with most of the post so far. I can add that as a breeder it would be next to impossible to keep data on all of our hatchlings, much less even knowing where they all end up. I for sure agree that proper diet, pure sunshine, exercise, and humidity is the keys to smooth shell growth and healthy tortoises.
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