Inside the Reptile Industry: Farming – April 2014

By Jennifer Greene and Loren Leigh

A controversial topic today in reptile keeping is the term “farmed”.  What does that really mean to the hobbyist today?  What does farmed even mean, and does farming really deserve the reputation it has garnered among reptile keepers?  Hopefully with some insight from Loren Leigh, the owner of LLLReptile and Supply Co, Inc, you can have a better understanding of what farming really means for reputable dealers.

A young Argus monitor

If you google “reptile farming”, or similar terms, you get many results for animal farms in the US that allow tours, or produce animals as pets, or for actual farms with cows, sheep, or similar livestock.  Getting someone to give you a straight answer on what exactly farming is in relation to reptiles is difficult as well; answers vary widely from person to person.  The reason for this is that there is no set definition for reptile farming.  Is it farming to have large numbers of ball pythons in enclosures, producing dozens or hundreds of babies a year?  Is it farming to have outdoor enclosures for a couple of sulcatas that produce dozens of babies each year?  Does your answer for the ball pythons change depending on the country they are being bred in?  What about the sulcatas?  Does it change based on numbers?  At what point are you no longer a hobbyist breeding an animal you love, and you are a farmer?  Does the country you’re in change your answer as to whether or not your animals are “truly” captive bred?

When I asked Loren to help me define Farming for this article, he explained the difficulty in defining a word so loosely used in our industry.  Generally speaking, though, it is considered farming when it is a particular species being produced in its country of origin in a controlled situation.  Furthermore, it is farming when the species is produced outdoors, relying on naturally occurring conditions to stimulate natural behaviors resulting in breeding.  Loren has had the fortune to actually visit reptile farms both in the US and outside of our borders, including a friend’s farm in Tanzania.  One of the biggest upsides to farming is that it allows for us here in the US to get species that are difficult to find in the wild, as well as difficult or not yet bred here in the states.

A baby Green Tree Python – a species commonly “farm bred”

 

Monitors, for example, are a group of animals not frequently bred here in the US.  For some species, we would not have any access to them whatsoever without the offspring produced at reptile farms in places like Indonesia.  One such farm is the one featured in this video (click link to view) that was visited by DM Exotics – you can see the large adult monitors being housed and cared for so that they can produce offspring each year.  Species such as melinus, doreanus, prasinus, dumerilii, and more are all farmed in Indonesia under conditions similar to their wild habitat.  Without reptile farms, US keepers would not have these species.  If you watch the video linked above, you can also see the conditions the animals are kept in.  Many reptiles cannot and will not breed if conditions are not exactly as they need; reptile farmers realize this and their breeding stock is housed spaciously, fed well, and clearly efforts are made to keep them healthy and happy.

Another example of farming would be red eared sliders here in the US, in particular, at farms located in the South in states like Louisiana.  The US is the biggest exporter of Red Eared Sliders in the world, along with map turtles, and soon box turtles as well.  However, none of the adult breeding stock being used to produce these numbers is wild caught – the red eared sliders, for example, that are used to produce these incredibly high numbers for export (both in the pet trade as well as food) come from established lines that have been in captivity for multiple generations.  There is no need for wild harvesting of red eared sliders or map turtles, thanks in large part to these reptile farms in the parts of the US they occur naturally.

A baby Mississippi Map Turtle 

The reality of farming is that an enterprising reptile keeper can set up outdoor enclosures for any species that occurs in a similar environment to where they live, add animals, feed them, and voila – you have a reptile farm.  One of the largest producers of sulcatas in the world, for example, lives in Honduras!   Florida also has an excellent environment for setting up many species outdoors, which is why it is such a mecca for reptile enthusiasts.  In the southern half of the state, you can set up an outdoor pen for nearly any tropical species and it will thrive.

While in the past, farming may not have been the most ideal situation for a reptile to originate from, a reputable, modern farming operation should be seen as the boon for the reptile industry that it is.  The emphasis for most farms has switched from simply holding animals to reproducing them, resulting in animals that are, essentially, captive bred in their country of origin.  Various locales of Green Tree Pythons are one example, as are blue tongue skinks, frilled dragons, Madagascar ground boas, emerald tree lizards, Colombian boas, and even many species of chameleons.  The majority of reptiles kept on farms such as these originate from adults in captivity that are kept with no intention of release, and instead are maintained until the next breeding season.

Baby Savannah Monitor

So before condemning all reptile farming as scummy and to be disdained, consider the species it has allowed us to keep.  Remember that by simply setting up an enclosure or a few outdoors, and letting the natural weather conditions handle the heating and lighting for your pets, you could be considered to be a reptile farmer.  Farming is not entirely cut and dry, and is not necessarily the worst way to produce pets for keepers here in the states or internationally.  Where do you draw the line between a large scale breeder and a farmer?  Can you?  Does it really matter? 

Food for thought.

Easier Than You Think: Maternal Incubation in Ball Pythons

Ball Python Maternal Incubation

by Jennifer Greene

Are you a beginner to ball python breeding?  Have you had trouble with successful hatch rates incubating your eggs artificially?  Are you curious about maternal incubation, and what’s involved to allow your female to successfully incubate her own eggs?   Then read on, and hopefully this article will help you on the path to successfully allowing your female to incubate her own eggs!

Before letting your ball python (or any snake species, for that matter) incubate her own eggs, you should prepare for this long before breeding even takes place.  I would not recommend allowing small or young females to maternally incubate, as they may not feed during this time and the extended period of non-feeding may be too much for them.  I generally only allow my females that are over 4 years old, and over 1800 grams (preferably in the 2,000 gram range) to maternally incubate their eggs.   Prep your girls by simply feeding them well and getting them into the best condition possible, with nice complete sheds and solid, good weight to them.  You want your girls as chunky as possible going into the breeding season, because again, they may or may not eat once they start incubating their eggs, and you don’t want the incubation process to drain them too severely.

female ball python

One of the author’s fat, healthy female ball pythons in the process of “building” prior to ovulating

Once you’ve selected the females that will be maternally incubating, proceed through the breeding process like usual.  For more information on this part, please refer to the numerous online caresheets, forums, and books currently available on the subject.  The only additional thing to consider is that if your female loses too much weight during the breeding season prior to ovulating, do not allow her to maternally incubate.  It is important that the female is in good condition throughout the entire process.

After your girl(s) have gone through the post-ovulation shed, begin readying their egg laying area.   If they are in a display cage, this can be an enclosed box slightly larger than the female with damp moss packed into it, or in a tub setup you can simply place damp moss throughout the warm side of the tub.  Watch your snake and tweak the cage conditions as needed – if she is laying directly on the heat, increase it by a few degrees until she is coiling just off to the side of the heat.  This way the eggs will be a consistent temperature, as often when they are laid directly on the heat source the bottom eggs can become over heated and go bad.  Be sure not to over-saturate the substrate or moss in the cage either, as this will also cause issues with the eggs.  It is easier to add a little more water, bit by bit, to the moss surrounding the female (and thus increase humidity that way) than it is to try and remove moisture if you have put too much in.  Too much moisture will kill the eggs much faster than not enough, so err on the side of dryness!

incubation tub

A tub set up and ready for maternal incubation

When your female begins to coil just off to the side of the heat, DON’T DECREASE THE HOT SPOT!  Most of the time the required high temperature is about 95 to 100 degrees; this needs to stay the same.  The female will select the spot that she will be able to maintain the correct 88 – 90 degree range of temperatures based on the conditions in the cage.  If you change the conditions in the cage, she cannot move the eggs, nor do much to increase her own temperature, and this can ultimately impact the temperature the eggs are incubated at.  Decreasing the hot spot by too much can result in longer incubation times, or if the temperatures get too cool, can even kill the entire clutch.

Once the eggs are laid, check the moss around the female, and ensure it stays damp.  Use of New Zealand Sphagnum moss is recommended, as it tends to last longer without molding or disintegrating than other types of moss.  To monitor temperatures, you can carefully slip the probe of a digital thermometer into the middle of the egg mass.  This will allow you to check on the temperatures of the eggs without disturbing the female too much, which is ideal.  Aside from providing fresh water daily, keep interaction with the female to a minimum at this point to keep stress as low as possible for her.  Once a week, check that the sphagnum moss is still damp (but not soaking wet).  Never, ever get the eggs themselves wet.  Only ever get moss or bedding around the female wet, and try to avoid saturating the bedding or moss.  Remember, it is easy to add a little water at a time until the ideal humidity is reached; it is significantly harder to remove it if you add too much.  Some noticeable dimpling, especially of the top eggs, is normal and should not be a cause for concern unless the eggs appear to be losing more than ¼ of their usual mass.

ball python with eggs

One of the author’s females incubating her eggs!

Average incubation time for maternally incubated clutches is not usually much shorter or longer than artificial clutches, so yours should hatch between 55 and 65 days.  I often start offering small rats to my incubating females during the last half of the incubation period.  Some females accept meals, some don’t.  Either is fine, but you just need to be cautious not to offer a prey item that is too large.   In the process of catching and constricting a large meal, there is the chance your female could disrupt her eggs, which naturally you want to avoid.  A female that refuses to eat the entire duration of incubation can be somewhat concerning to you as a keeper, but this is the exact reason you should always start with a female in the best possible condition.  Once the eggs hatch and the smell has been washed off of her, she should start feeding right away.

Once the babies start to pip, you can leave them alone in the cage until they have all hatched.  The female will not squish them, and will even adjust her coils so that they can poke their noses out to breathe.  It will take anywhere from a few hours up to 3 days for all the babies to emerge from their eggs, so be patient!  Once all the babies have emerged, remove them, and then completely clean the cage and soak the female.  It is necessary to thoroughly clean the cage as well as soak the female to remove all smell of the eggs and babies, as well as clean up the goop from hatching.  Any remaining smell of eggs/babies will result in the female continuing to coil and attempt to incubate whatever has the smell of the eggs.

ball python babies hatching

Hatchlings!

And that’s it!  Once you’ve set up one female to maternally incubate successfully, you will find each following maternal incubation to be easier and easier to set up and maintain.   I personally let most of my females incubate their own eggs, resorting to artificial incubation only for small or young females who are not as large or as heavy as I would prefer.  While you do not have the same degree of control over a maternally incubated clutch, the female does instinctually know exactly what to do.  The eggs may not look as pretty as they do when incubated artificially, but the babies come out in the exact same excellent shape!