Melissa Kaplan's
Herp Care Collection
Last updated January 1, 2014

Tobago, A Visually-Impaired Vietnamese Leaf Turtle

Geoemyda spengleri. Also known as Black-breasted leaf turtle; Vietnamese wood turtle, Chinese leaf turtle

©2000 Melissa Kaplan


Tobago, a captive bred Vietnamese Leaf Turtle, was six months old when I got him from the breeder in 1996. About the size of a quarter (< 1 in. / 2.5 cm), his right eye was a bit foggy with a whitish cast over it, as it had been from the time he hatched out of his egg. It did not then appear to affect his ability to see and focus on prey.


The Hatchling Housing
I initially set Tobago up in a 15 gallon reptile aquarium (glass tank with half-glass/half-screen top). For substrate, I used plain potting soil in which I planted a small philodendron in one corner. I also placed clumps of damp sphagnum moss in various areas. In another corner stood a fake coleus that came in his original enclosure.

For his water area, a black plastic frozen meal dish (6.75 x 5.5 x 1 in. / 17 x 14 x 2.5 cm inside dimensions) was partially buried into the substrate to make it easy for him to climb into. It was set at a slant so that the water pooled at one end, with the other end barely wet.

For hiding places, I had concave, rectangular strip of bark which was set over a slight depression in the substrate. Thus, there was the bark strip, the clumps of moss, and the lower leaves of the fake coleus for him to hide under. He used these most often, though as the philodendron grew and colonized other parts of the tank in a vining fashion, he would occasionally be found under one of its leaves.

Per the advice of the breeder, I used only a human heating pad under one-half of the enclosure. The enclosure was on the floor of my den. I do not heat my house other than to take the chill off on winter mornings, when inside temperatures can get down to 55-60 F (13-15 C). Until he went into hibernation in the winter (November-March), I would also use a 25 watt incandescent light bulb in a silver reflector hood to boost the temperature on the warm side of the enclosure.

I installed a UV-producing fluorescent light over the screened side (which was also the warm side) of his enclosure. Although the literature said nothing about their needing one, my den is dark and there is not much in the way of ambient sunlight over where his enclosure was located.

I discovered the hard way that they do seem to need ultraviolet wavelengths for calcium metabolism. I bought a new under-cabinet-type fluorescent fixture for his enclosure. It had an opaque plastic cover that slides in the fixture to reduce the glare for humans. I stupidly slid it into place when I installed it over the turtle's tank, replacing the previous clunky reptile fluorescent fixture. Within six months, his shell was soft and his appetite was dropping due to metabolic bone disease. After soundly kicking myself in the ankle, I removed the opaque cover and within a couple of months his shell and appetite was back to normal. There was no other change in his environment or diet (which included periodically dredging his worms in calcium powder prior to feeding, as well as what he got from munching through snail shells) to account for the MBD other than the lack of regular exposure to ultraviolet wavelengths.

Given that they spend a great deal of their days, in aggregate, under moderate to heavy cover, it would appear that they do not need as much UV exposure as do other species of chelonians and lizards who spend significantly more time every day basking or foraging in the direct sunlight. But given at least this individual's impaired calcium metabolism (due to insufficient D being manufactured due to the inadequate UV exposure and not otherwise not available in sufficient quantities in the prey he ate), I would recommend providing regular UVB exposure during the course of the year.

I regularly watered the enclosure substrate so that the soil remained damp, but not wet, to the touch. Higher areas would drain and dry faster than the lower areas, so there was a choice of microenvironments within the small enclosure.


Food and Feeding
Initially, this quarter-sized turtle at only very small (thin and short) redworms and meal worms. I cultured the mealworms so as to have the sizes he needed. I was able to find small enough redworms in the containers I bought from the bait refrigerator at my local supermarket. As he grew a little bigger, I was able to find very small snails during the early spring for him. A friend of mine with an organic garden also collected tiny snails and slugs for him.

I dredged the worms in Repti-Cal (calcium, phosphorous, vitamins A, B, D, and E) prior to feeding him. As he grow larger, I reduced the frequency of dredging. The mealworm substrate was supplemented with calcium carbonate powder, and the redworms were fed high-calcium greens such as collards. The snails and slugs were grown in a garden planted for a green iguana, so they too were cultured on a nutritious selection of high calcium greens.

To ensure he was able to successfully "capture" his worms, I held them for him with a pair of forceps. Once he grabbed the worm with his beak, I let go and let him continue on his own. Eating consistent of biting the worm to hold on to it, and simultaneously pulling his head back or into his shell while putting one front foot on the rest of the worm and pushing it away from him. In this way, he is able to rip off pieces. This pull-push method of eating worms continues to this day.

Snails and slugs move more slowly and so were easier for him to catch. Attracted by the slow waving of the eyestalks, the turtle slowly approaches, opens his mouth wide, and descends upon the snail or slug, generally just behind the eyestalks. The pull-push method is again employed. With snails, this method effectively removes the body from the shell. It is not unusual to see the turtle's head entirely enveloped in the defensive snail foam as he works on de-shelling and consuming it.

He can eat snails surprisingly large for his size, and will attempt to eat snakes too large for his size. When the snail is too large, he gives up, often leaving a fatally injured snail. On snails closer to his ability to capture and kill, he will eat a couple of bites, leaving the rest behind. He will not return to either of these snails, ignoring them and looking around for fresh food when he is hungry again.

This spring (2000) was the first time he accepted a pinky. I have offered him defrosted one-day old mouse pinks (approximately 1 x < 0.5 in. / 2.54 x < 1.2 cm) before only to be looked at like "have you lost your mind - that is NOT an invertebrate!". This time, however, he responded immediately, tracking it and biting it until he got a good hold on it. It could be that he responded this time because the pinky looks like my pinky finger – and the rest of my fingers. He has been hand fed so long now to accommodate his increasingly monocular, left-sided vision that he responds with a head-up, mouth agape stance when he is hungry and he sees my fingers hovering or moving anywhere above or within his enclosure (as I do when picking dead foliage or just generally straightening up in there).

I have found no preference as to where he likes to eat. He takes food while in his pond as well as when on dry land. He will occasionally decide to move to a different place to eat, and will walk or scurry off to a new place, food dangling from his mouth.

The one other food he has consistently refused to eat is plant food. I have offered, and will continue to do so, a variety of torn leafy greens, vegetable shreds and small pieces of fruit to see if he will take anything. He apparently refuses to believe that his kind is omnivorous. Just in case he should decide to change his mind and doesn't want to wait for the next offering, I keep only safely edible plants now planted in his enclosure.

2002 Update: The subject of how to get G. spengleri to eat plant matter came up on the Spengleri discussion list. As a result of the suggestions, I tried offering Tobago pieces of overripe pear: he ate it. All in all, however, he still prefers his earthworms - the bigger the better, as far as he's concerned.


The Adult Enclosure
Tobago is now housed in a Rubbermaid tub (21.5 x 15 x 5.5 in. / 54.6 x 38 x 14 cm inside dimension; US 7.6 gallons). As with his first reptile aquarium, the substrate is potting soil to a varying depth of 1.5-3 inches. This allows him to burrow beneath the soil when he wants to, or burrow beneath the creeping fig that is growing across the surface in areas, or under the bark slab. In one corner is planted a hibiscus, in another a miniature rose plant cultivated for indoor growth. A two inch plastic flower pot lays on its side with some potting soil in it. This provides an alternative shelter for him; he has been seen laying inside the pot as well as laying underneath it.

The soil is kept watered till it is damp but not wet, with the higher areas draining faster. Uneaten redworms are allowed to burrow into the substrate where they work on composing the fallen vegetation and helping to aerate the soil. The same black plastic "pond" is still in use.


Tobago has shown an inclination to wander. At 2.5 in. (6.35 cm) CL, he is not big enough to let free roam without supervision. That does not deter him, however, and he has figured out that he can use the furnishings in his enclosure to climb high enough to topple over the edge of the open-topped container. The first time he did this was when his enclosure was placed outside on the semi-shaded patio. He managed to get out of his enclosure, cross the patio and make it 10 feet down the side of the house where he was found happily hiding in the mint bed.

This has necessitated some rearranging of things in his enclosure, lowering high spots of the substrate that were near the edge and moving furnishings in an inch or two from the edges. If things migrate back toward the edge, he is sure to try it again, and in fact has been found on the floor a couple of times. Letting him out for some supervised exploration and wandering seems to curb his desire or need to do it on his own.


Breeding Season
In the fall of the year, generally starting in September/October, Tobago becomes quite restless. He begins patrolling his enclosure, and will find high spots to perch on, bracing himself in an almost vertical position, from where he can search the landscape for any females that may happen to be in the vicinity. Since sex in the G. spengleri apparently is determined by incubation temperature and/or other factors, and the correct temperature or mix of factors has not yet been successfully determined, Tobago's yearning remains unrequited year after year. After a month of restless wandering, searching and occasional semaphoring with one forelimb, he retires to a hiding place and begins his winter hibernation.


Vision Becomes Increasingly Impaired; Failure-To-Thrive Sets In
As 1999 progressed from spring to summer, it became apparent that Tobago's eye was getting worse. It is slightly larger than the left eye, and considerably more cloudy than it was. He cannot see anything to his right, and so food must be presented on his left side.

It has become more difficult for him to see redworms when presented to him in his pond. To facilitate feeding, the worm is placed on a folded white paper towel placed on a free patch of soil in the enclosure. So long as the worm is placed on his left, sighted side, he can see it and will attack it. Snails and slugs are still attacked and consumed with gusto, so long as he can see the eyestalks wave on his left side.

He will also wait for larger snails to be assisted from their shells – by me. Using the forceps to crush the shell, he is then able to pull them out as there is less resistance on the part of the snail. I tend to do this only when he is very hungry or I am otherwise out of more suitably-sized prey as if he isn't hungry, well, it isn't a lot of fun for the snail.

As his eye became worse, he also became sluggish. He would hide for prolonged periods of time, showed little interest in eating, and failed to engage in his usual breeding season behavior. I decided to try boosting his temperature and lighting (not the UVB, but overall brightness of ambient lighting). To do both easily and without festooning his Rubbermaid tub with rickety fixtures, I moved him into my breakfast room which his the main foul weather basking area for my tortoises (desert tortoises, Gopherous agassizzi; chaco tortoises, Geochelone chilensis), iguanas (rock iguana, Cyclura nubila; green iguana, Iguana iguana), and a ball python (Python regius). The room itself is kept in the low- to mid-80s (26-30 C), temperatures varying depending on position within the vertical gradient. Since being moved into the room, Tobago has done much better, becoming once again more alert, active and feeding very well.


September 2000 Update
In the seven months since I wrote the above, Tobago has done extremely well. He is now gobbling down "mini-crawlers", earthworms that easily stretch out to 4-5 inches, making him look rather like he's wrestling with a boa constrictor. He has grown a bit lengthwise but also filled out and is taller. He has outgrown his flower pot and half-log hide boxes and has figured out how to climb out of his enclosure. To appease his apparent need to hang with the big guys, I will let him out to wander around for a while. Once he parks himself in a corner or under a tortoise hidebox to go to sleep, I return him to his enclosure, his desire to roam sated for a while.

I recently moved him to a larger enclosure with the intent to eventually install a fountain in there so that he has continuous flowing water. The trick has been to try to figure out how to do a small installation that he won't injure himself in and that won't make it difficult for me to deal with the waste situation, as his favorite place to defecate is in the water (from which he removes himself and glares at me until it is changed and the cleaned, refilled "pool" is replaced. The larger enclosure resulted in my putting in some new plants and rock formations.

I did notice a certain reluctance to use the new "pool" - a 7" square glazed terra cotta plant saucer. His old pool was a black plastic oval frozen food container that he's used since I got him. After an initial period of skirting the new pool and spending more time under the leafy overhangs, he now can be found spending the usual amount of time in the pool. He has outgrown his half-buried plant pot, which is terra cotta-colored plastic. I will replace it with a new glazed pot in the spring and see if the same stress reaction occurs.

2002 Update: I recently replaced the plastic plant pot with a larger green ceramic coffee mug. As with all things new, he is currently avoiding it, spending his time in his cave on the other side of the enclosure when he isn't running around trying to attract my attention in hopes of another worm.

2003 Update: G. spengleri, like other chelonians, are impossible to visually sex when they are hatched and throughout 'childhood'. Different species reach sexual maturity at different times, some taking 7-10+ years to do so, and they do not begin to develop secondary sex characteristics until shortly before that time. Through talking with members of the Spengleri email list, several of whom have one or more colonies (one male + one or more females per colony), it has become easier to tell the difference earlier between male and female. Thus it was that I discovered Tobago is a female! The tail on females is quite long, wrapping around their hind end, the tip reaching the top of the thigh; male tails are considerably shorter. Alas, being female doesn't make breeding season any easier. She continues well--and well fed. If I'm not right there with her food at 7 AM, she awaits me, firmly planted in her pond, and literally climbs the walls when she sees me approaching, food in hand.

I haven't been very good about documenting her growth rate, but here is the data I do have:

1996: < 1" CL
2000: 2.5" (6.35 cm) CL
2003: 3.5" (8 cm) CL, 5.5" (14 cm) STL; 125.5 g

Related Articles

Captive Propagation and Husbandry of the Vietnamese Leaf Turtle (Geoemyda spengleri)

Photos of Tobago

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