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Grass Snake Egg Incubator???

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GemmaJF View Drop Down
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    Posted: 16 Oct 2014 at 7:00pm
I've been wondering about the possibility of installing an artificial incubator box in the compost heap in my garden. The idea being it might be possible to film egg laying and the young hatching. One could also monitor temperature/humidity etc.

Anyone any ideas how this might be done such as suitable egg laying media, available heated incubator designs etc? 

We know grass snakes have used the heap in the past as we often find the young in the garden, but if a box could be set-up and provide ideal conditions, it might just be possible a female grass snake will find it and use it.

Any thoughts or suggestions appreciated, as it must at least be worth having a go at it. I guess any commercially available incubator would need some form of access added to it.




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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Suzy Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 17 Oct 2014 at 6:19pm
Wow ambitious Gemma! I look forward to replies about this. As you know I get them in my compost heap but they don't breed.

Suz
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote GemmaJF Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 17 Oct 2014 at 7:51pm
I've done some research Suz. Seems ideal temperature is 26-27 degrees for grass snake eggs. This would suggest an incubator with some form of entrance set to this temperature might just attract a female. They certainly have no trouble working out where hot spots are in captivity!

I'm looking at this model of incubator at the moment, unless someone can chirp in with something better or more suitable:


I could add some wire mesh so the heating element is not accessible by the adult snake or hatchlings. The idea would be to monitor for a female with a camera, once she's laid and left the eggs, perhaps some sort of trap door is shut to protect the eggs from mammals etc.

It kind of does seem ambitious but I remember in Malcolm Smith's book it is mentioned that grass snakes will use artificial heat sources (I think it was brick baking ovens that were specifically mentioned). So it does seem feasible at least.


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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Iowarth Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 18 Oct 2014 at 11:05pm
Hi Gemma

I am not sure about how one would manage to get sufficient light etc. but, as a general rule, alleged reptile incubators are total c**p. I don't know about this particular one but most others end up being thrown away in disgust after they have cooked eggs, eggs have become dessicated, temperature regulation appalling, on at least one occasion shorted out (spectacularly!!) and so on and so forth. The foam at the bottom needs to be kept moist so eggs are constantly disturbed. I know of no reptile breeder who uses them (although I do know some who have tried them and thrown them away).

I would be inclined, whether using this or a home made incubator, to physically remove the eggs, and place them in an incubator using (pre-warmed) sphagnum moss as a fairly natural medium. While this would still need the humidity checking it woudl be considerably easier to sort out something for a web-cam.

For what it's worth, I incubate in an old refrigerator with all the chilling mechanism removed and a tubular heater thermostatically controlled and fan assisted. This regularly hatches out dozens (in a bad year) to hundreds (in a good year!) of lizards and terrapins and on a couple of occasions, grass snake eggs rescued from destroyed compost heaps! Other breeders use purpose built cupboards otherwise similar or even the old favourite - the bottom of the airing cupboard! In any of these the eggs are placed in a suitable medium in tubs. And it can be filmed - some years back, film of sand lizards hatching apparently in the wild were actually filmed here - once the first signs of hatching (generally eggs sweating) were observed, the egg container (which had a "sculpted" egg chamber in it), was taken out and kept in a warm room for filming.

I am sure that you could persuade a grass snake to lay where you wanted by using one of the better waterproof heat mats within your compost heap but it must not get wet (as against slightly damp). See http://www.eurorep.co.uk/heating/heat-mats/habistat-heat-mat-uk-11-x11-280mmx280mm-12-watts for f'rinstance. Alternatively, probably cheaper and safer, try soil heating cable - waterproof and again gentle heat.

Hope this helps a bit
Chris
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote GemmaJF Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 19 Oct 2014 at 9:30am
That helps a lot more than a bit Chris! I was starting to go down the route of thinking of building some kind of box to house the incubator in, reading your advice it would be better to build some kind of box with the heat tape or a mat and forget buying the incubator.

I'm still inclined to go keep it all outdoors (probably due to naivety Wink) - though I guess this also gives the advantage that if no egg laying occurs we might see reptiles using the box on the camera in any case, perhaps digesting a meal etc. We should be able to see images using an IR camera in the dark, though a low level light could be added to the box. I've just remembered whilst typing this that I read once about red-eared terrapins that managed to hatch in the UK in an outdoor heated box provided for wildfowl. 



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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote GemmaJF Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 19 Oct 2014 at 9:45am
More questions Chris, what sort of level of humidity should I aim for? I found one reference that gave the ideal temp at 26-27 degrees, does this sound about right?

Edited by GemmaJF - 19 Oct 2014 at 9:47am
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Iowarth Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 19 Oct 2014 at 10:09am
Hi again Gemma,

For most temperate reptiles incubation temperatures between 23 and 28 (generally fluctuating in that range) are about right. I have a sneaking suspicion that using compost reduces the reliance on heat from the sun so much of that fluctuation would disappear with grass snakes in which case a more steady temperature within, but towards the top end of that range would be about right. This is, of course, a very long-winded way of saying "Yes"!

It is difficult to give a number for humidity (I am very unscientific here - I have a sophisticated measuring tool called my finger with a scale of "too dry" to "too wet" with "that feels about right" in the middle! It's worked for some 60 years so I find it adequate! In terms of numbers I would say that you would want an absolute minimum of 70% and a maximum of 90%. In the latter case the feel is "distinctly damp but not wet" if you can imagine such a thing!

Your recollection the red-ears is quite correct, but it is important to remember that the requirements are significantly different especially terms of humidity where the hard-shelled eggs of most terrapins and tortoises are less reliant on osmosis for water and can thus cope with lower (or even higher!) humidity levels. These I incubate in the same temperature regime as all other species but am not fussy about humidity - so long as its not dry or wet it seems to work fine!

Again, I hope this helps.

Chris
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote GemmaJF Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 19 Oct 2014 at 10:47am
It helps a great deal Chris. Thumbs Up 
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Robert V Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 26 Oct 2014 at 7:40pm
Hi Gemma,

Chris is absolutely right about the heating elements cooking eggs etc.

I have tried vermiculite and sphagnum moss, vermiculite holds the moisture better but difficult to get the moisture levels correct in the first place. I reckon the best bet would be a water proof heating element inserted into the compost heap very close to the box. 

You wouldn't have to worry about the Grass Snake not laying in the box, because if its warm enough and damp enough they will be drawn to the target anyway.

As you know I had a 24 x 24 x 18 'aquarium' that I practically filled with substrate and joined it by tube to the quarters where I was keeping the Grassie. It had two heat mats but not in the tank as I found this dried the substrate too much in the first try. They are frantic come the time of laying, round and round the tank, but as soon as they 'found' the entrance to the substrate tank that was it - eggs laid. 

Your problem is going to be coercing the snakes in the direction of the heap isn't it?

And if it's just for filming, then why not undertake the process artificially? My incubations were from 25 deg day, 22 deg at night, but you have to do some research at your laying position first to find out how long the heat mats have to be switched off and on in order to achieve that. Thermostats are crap... and a fire hazard to boot. So it has to be a timer operating at the wall (fused spur).

The main difficulty I see with the proposal is control. 

Rob
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote GemmaJF Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 27 Oct 2014 at 9:58am
Cheers Rob, I think we must have snakes visit the heap because for several years we've had the tiny bootlace juveniles in the garden. I can't identify where the eggs are laid though as I've never found them in the heap when turning it in the spring. But with the pond I'm fairly sure they will at least visit the garden again. There has been a reduction locally in livestock farming too, so less muck heaps about than there were 10 years ago. Not good for the snakes but as I seem to be one of only a few in the village with active compost heaps, perhaps lucky for this project.

My plan was to put in the box then cover with the turned heap adding horse poop. This might do the trick of producing the right smell to get the females interested in the heap and then finding the box. (the box entrance being at the front and the other 3 sides reasonably sealed with corrugated tins)

I want to do it all live on the web, this is the main reason for doing it outside, like a bird nesting box but for grassies instead. I think there is value in getting herps out to the public and get some interest via these kind of web cams as they haven't had as much exposure compared to mammals and birds.

So there would be a cam in the box, and one outside, so we might see the frantic females inspecting the area and also the young emerge from the eggs and then the box! As there will be a long period of inactivity, getting public involvement monitoring the cams and alerting that the first hatchlings have appeared seems a good activity.

If it were an overwhelming success and we could find a really reliable control system (my engineering background might help there) the outdoor snake egg incubator might be something other people could try too to help with grassy conservation. I've really found it a bit of a struggle in the UK to get really good heat producing compost. Only really worked when we had a rabbit and the mix of its poo with the wood shaving seemed to do the trick. The reality of gardening means it's hard to get the right mix of greens and browns to really get the thing cooking, particularly when we get rubbish summers and if hoping to get grassies using it, regular turning and mixing of the compost isn't an option.












Edited by GemmaJF - 27 Oct 2014 at 10:01am
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