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Flowerback Box Turtle - Care (Cuora galbinifrons)  – Sharon Chancellor

Cuora galbinifrons Update - Sharon Chancellor

Differentiating Cuora galbinifrons subspecies - Chris Tabaka DVM

Cuora galbinifrons bourreti  - Visual Determination of Subspecies - Chris Tabaka DVM

Cuora galbinifrons galbinifrons  - Visual Determination of Subspecies - Chris Tabaka DVM

Cuora galbinifrons picturata  - Visual Determination of Subspecies - Chris Tabaka DVM

Quiz: Name that Cuora galbinifrons Subspecies - Chris Tabaka DVM and Sharon Chancellor

Cuora photograph Gallery

Differentiating Male and Female Cuora galbinifrons (Flowerback Box Turtle) - Chris Tabaka DVM and Sharon Chancellor, MT

Cuora galbinifrons: A humbling experience - Sharon Chancellor

After keeping various turtles and tortoises for six years, I was beginning to feel confident about taking on a species that was a bit more challenging. Until that point I had been keeping Testudo horsfieldii, Testudo hermanni, various Terrepene carolina spp, and Libyan origin Testudo graeca graeca .

The latter proved difficult for me to over-winter and I eventually rehomed them. I began to look into other tortoise species that would be easy to maintain indoors during cold months, and was about to settle on the Egyptian tortoise, Testudo kleinmanni, when I learned about the Asian turtle crisis and read chat list posts encouraging keepers to consider taking on an Asian species. I gave this some thought and decided to join the fight to establish as many of these species in captivity before they were completely gone from their native environments. The species I decided on was the Flowerback boxturtle, Cuora galbinifrons.

Why I chose this species is really simple. It was the turtle I dubbed my "dream turtle" when I first started keeping shelled reptiles. I purchased many books and when I saw a photo of this turtle I couldn't believe an animal like this actually existed. So my choice was easy, and, thanks to the internet, finding specimens for sale was just as easy. I decided I would try to buy twelve animals. Four males and eight females would give me four potential breeding trios. Sounds very reasonable and fairly straightforward doesn't it?

In January of 2000 I bought my first two galbinifrons. They were a pair of subadults that were called Cuora galbinifrons picturata. I was vaguely aware that there were other subspecies, but picturata seemed to be the only one available as far as I could tell. The dealer told me how nice these two were, too young to sex, eating, active, and had "mint" shells. I bought them "sight-unseen". The pair arrived on Tuesday, January 4, 2000 and as I unpacked each I was greeted by two very active turtles. They were no more shy than any North American box turtle upon first arrival, and I thought all these rumors about the Flowerback being incredibly shy and difficult to acclimate must be an exaggeration. So I set the pair up in a large plastic storage bin with a ceramic heat emitter, a 50-Watt spot lamp, and a subsurface heating pad under the opposite end from the heat emitter. I used moistened Carefresh as the substrate, provided a plastic dish for water, and added wet sphagnum moss at the end with the subsurface heat pad so the turtles would burrow in an area I knew would stay warm. I placed the enclosure in the quietest room in my home, my bedroom. All this done, I started offering the pair some food items. I was told by one list member that she had had good luck starting a Flowerback on stinky wet cat food, the stinkier the better! This ended up being what the two turtles started eating only two days after arriving at my home. I really felt I could handle these turtles.

Now I took off trying to locate more picturata, and started to educate myself about the other subspecies. I bought three more from the first dealer. These were arriving from overseas and would be in the country barely 72 hours by the time I received them. I thought this was a bonus, as no one else would have had time to do any harm. I also bought an adult pair from another dealer, and, after questioning him about the sex, he backed off and wouldn't guarantee they were a pair even though he was advertising them as such. He also said they were eating. I figured I could sex them later. When the adult pair arrived I was shocked at how big these turtles were and how heavy they felt. I just never really got a visual when I read what little information was available. I decided they were a male and female. The second thing I noticed was that these two were not coming out of their shell. At best all I could see was a pair of nares. I then started to examine every inch of the turtles, and immediately noticed a "bruising" pattern on both turtles that followed along the scute seams of their carapace and plastron, as well as under many of the costal scutes. When I called the dealer to let him know they arrived, I made sure I mention this to him. I then set these two up in a bin of their own, the same as the first pair, and placed the enclosure in my bedroom. Two days later these two turtles were not eating or even moving about in the enclosure. When I soaked them in my laundry room sink, they would immediately disappear with a sharp hiss of exhaled air. The only way I saw their faces was if I opened the laundry room door just a crack and peeked in. What I saw was two emaciated turtles, and what I thought was heavy weight turned out to be merely the weight of their dense shells. Even before I posted a description of the ever-enlarging bruising pattern on these turtles, I knew I needed to get them to a vet immediately. Tuesday, January 18 I took them to the Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital (VMTH) at the University of California at Davis. There Dr. Michelle Hawkins attended the turtles and it was evident that they were critically ill. They were suffering from vascular bleeding, expressing itself as what is known as petechia. This is the classic sign of septicemia, systemic infection. The turtles stayed the night so they could get fluids, food, and blood drawn for chemistry and whole blood counts, as well as get the opinions of the other vets in the Avian/Exotic department. The turtle that I had decided was the female died during the night. She was my first casualty. A necropsy revealed it was a male and cultures produced a systemic infection with Proteus vulgaris, common to the gut tract of omnivorous and carnivorous reptiles.

The other three turtles that I ordered arrived the same day I lost my first Flowerback. I immediately unpacked them and looked them over. Two were what I believed to be adult females, and one was a subadult of a different species. The dealer noticed the latter was different, but didn't know it was not a picturata. Later it would be identified as Cuora galbinifrons bouretti. One adult picturata had her foot sticking out of her shell and was literally crushing her own foot. All three showed signs of petechia. I flipped. I chose the worst one, put the others in their new enclosure in my bedroom, and got to the VMTH. The bills were mounting, the vets had no normal values for this species to compare the test results to, and I was faced with deciding how to proceed. I decided that I got myself into this, so I was going to go for it. Out came the Master Card with the $5000.00 limit. As the weekend approached, I attended the January 21 meeting of the Sacramento Turtle and Tortoise Club. There, one of my acquaintances presented me with another adult picturata. She purchased it six months prior at a local pet shop because she thought it was beautiful. She had only seen it come out of its shell one time. She simply gave it to me. She thought it was a female, but wasn't sure. Neither was I. I came home and set it up in its own bin in my room, just as all the others had been. At this point I had four separate setups lining the walls along the floor in my room. I treated each acquisition as a separate group, even the lone picturata, and was careful not to cross-contaminate. When the free picturata turtle began to make a bubbling sound during its first night in my room, I not only felt like crying because I knew it had an upper respiratory problem, but my husband woke up and asked me if I really needed to keep all these "bleeping" animals in our bedroom. I thought at that moment that it could not get worse than this. I was wrong.

By the end of January all of the remaining seven turtles had blood work completed and the worst had blood cultures run. Parasite work had been done on those that had presented stool. The bubbling turtle had radiographs taken and was diagnosed with pneumonia. I had learned how to gently extract various uncooperative turtle heads and limbs out of their shells, to give injectable meds, tube feed/medicate, and curse really well. It took anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour and a half per turtle to treat them. The freebie picturata with pnuemonia turned out to be the most difficult turtle to treat and the most expensive. It took two vets and a vet student to perform a trachea wash on it, and it was suggested before the vets had success that it be anesthetized. Gassing these turtles can take up to an hour to get them to sleep and cost up to $100.00. I was so glad the vets succeeded! All the turtles were treated with oral meds to knock back their parasite load of various flagellates and nematodes. Five were treated with injectable antibiotics for septicemia, even though nothing significant grew out of the blood cultures.

In short, my life revolved around tube feeding and injecting turtles for a 21-day course of antibiotics. After the injections were over, all but two turtles were eating on their own. Stinking ocean whitefish wet cat food which left my bedroom rank, and soaked Pretty Pets tortoise food were the favorites out of every live food, vegetable, and fruit I could think of to offer. At one point, crickets had laid eggs in the wet Carefresh bedding of one of the enclosures and I had pinhead crickets swarming all over the turtles. My husband spent several nights on the couch, and my children knew to stay away from mom when she was prying open (gently!) a turtle's plastron with a spatula. To make things even worse, every time I walked into my bedroom, all I was greeted with was a bunch of closing plastrons.

Around the middle of February it became apparent that the remaining adult picturata, whose mate had died, was failing. It was producing foul feces and a subsequent gram stain showed that it had an overgrowth of yeast in its gut track. It was decided that Itraconazole given orally was the best choice for me to give at home. I continued to perform gram stains on the feces over the next week, and the yeast cells were no longer actively budding, but the animal wasn't looking good at all. I made the choice to have it euthanized and end its suffering. It was put to sleep on March 1, my second casualty. I would later find out that both deceased turtles, advertised as a pair from the dealer, were males and were severely malnourished and diseased. This dealer did end up refunding the cost of the turtles.

March brought another setback.  The first two subadults I purchased presented with a "blushing" of inflamed blood vessels head to tail along the midline seam of the plastron and along the growth seams of the costal scutes. I lost it at this point and through tears I called the vets for advice. This time, poor Dr. Shannon Ferrell had to deal with me. As he held the one I brought in the "blushing' intensified. It looked like the classic sign of septicemia. Both subadults went onto the 21-day course of injectable antibiotics. We decided to retreat all the turtles for parasites as a precaution. Then the two of the three turtles I received on the 19th of January also presented with this very same blushing. We repeated their antiparasitics and antibiotics as well. Blood work didn't point to any definite cause for the symptoms, and the turtles continued to eat rather well. For animals suffering from what appeared to be septicemia on the surface, they looked pretty darned good, to say the least.

By April Dr. Ferrell would meet with me and we would go over in detail all aspects of my husbandry. Once the details were sorted out and the vets got together for troubleshooting and they concluded that I needed get the animals into a room where overall ambient humidity and heat could be controlled, rather than trying to control it within each bin. It wasn't known if the subsurface heat source was actually burning the turtles, so this was removed. I was also advised to strip out the moss and Carefresh and use newsprint. This would remove the possibility of mold infecting the turtles as they were treated, and keep the cages cleaner.

By the end of May I had (with very little trouble) convinced my husband to let me take over one of the sheds in our back yard.  I moved all the turtles into the shed. I replaced the plastic storage bins with 40-gallon rubber water troughs I found at a feed store. Each group of turtles remained a quarantine group by who they were shipped with. I plugged in spotlights for all, and used an electric oil filled radiator heater for the central heat source. I also bought an electric humidifier as well. I placed the humidity gauge and thermometer at turtle level for a more accurate reading. I finally had my bedroom back!

At this point I was well over $4000.00 into vet bills. Recheck exams and recheck radiographs for the pneumonia case all added up quickly. This didn't include the cash I used to buy housing equipment. I was fighting dehydration in all the turtles as they didn't like to bathe themselves. I found three more picturata at a pet store that I decided I would get started and re-home as soon as possible, which I did. I still had other animals to care for and I still found other projects to distract me. When I brought in a sick tortoise I had taken on that needed to be euthanized, everything just hit me all at once and I came to my wits end. Dr. Lisa Tell was so kind and suggested that I have them out to my home. So I made the appointment to have an "Aviary Call" and three vets with three students came to see my turtle shed. That was perhaps the best thing I could have spent my money on. Now the team of vets that attended my turtles knew exactly how they were being kept, and made suggestions on lighting and hide boxes. It was a big relief. It was also really funny seeing everyone stooping into the shed that is a converted playhouse. I didn't take pictures, but I really wish I had!

Now, after all of this misery one would have to wonder what possessed me to go through this entire scenario again by acquiring ten more turtles of the subspecies of Flowerback known as Cuora galbinifrons galbinifrons. Well, I like stress. I had been told the ssp galbinifrons was infinitely easier to treat and that all the Cuora species were going to be CITES II on July 14, 2000.  Therefore in the beginning of July I acquired four ssp galbinifrons from an East Coast dealer and six from a West Coast dealer, both of whom I had purchased animals from before, but not Flowerbacks. All ten animals received vet care at UCD. I went through the same heartbreaking experience, but this time out of ten turtles only five survived. So ill where some of these animals upon receiving them, that all I did by taking them on was simply to bring them up to the metabolic temperature they needed to allow them to die. I forgave the first dealers out of ignorance, but the ones that packed such obviously ill animals made me feel dirty for buying all these animals in the first place. It was obvious by then what hell these animals go through before they ever reach our hands.

All the turtles remain in quarantine. The five picturata and one bouretti are eating, and growing.
They were growing too fast at one point, showing amazing and impressive amount of new shell growth, and I eventually weaned all the turtles off the cat food and onto a mixture of 50% chopped mixed greens, 25% omnivore trout chow soaked, and 25% Pretty Pets® tortoise pellets soaked. This mixture is readily accepted by all three subspecies I have in my care. I have only one turtle left that requires tube feeding. I had been keeping them on newsprint until recently when high winds reduced my humidity to a mere 30%. The turtles were so dehydrated that they looked like raisins in a shell. This fueled the fire I needed to put my fears of fungal infection in the turtles aside and get a substrate down that holds moisture. They are now burrowing around in wet leaf litter and are more active than they have been since I acquired my first Flowerbacks.

The only other setback I have had is the "knuckling-over" my smallest galbinifrons has developed. It is literally walking on the tops of its front feet, but continues to eat heartily. Blood work on this animal suggests the possibility of gout, however other tests need to be performed to confirm this, another mystery that means getting a recheck very soon. All animal protein has been removed from its diet and a second course of blood work will be done within four weeks of the first set to see if there is any positive change. It is thought that the trout chow, even at only 25% of the total diet, is still far too much protein. Much of the information I gained from fellow keepers of these turtles suggested that they are omnivores that lean towards the carnivorous side. With the abnormally rapid shell growth and this presumptive gout case, it would seem that these animals are less tolerant of high animal protein diets and may require a predominantly herbivorous diet. Greens are readily consumed by the turtles in my care with only one exception, this animal just now starting to eat independently since his acquisition in July. He is the first of my turtles to eat an earthworm.

There are many lessons I have learned in all of this. First things first: ask questions of as many people as you can before you buy the first specimen of a new species you are intending to work with. I will never forget the response I received from one Tortoise Trust member held in high regard. He asked what possessed me to pick the Flower-back box turtle, which was one of the most difficult turtles to acclimate to captivity, and told me that he wished I had contacted him first so he could have talked me out of it. I felt sick to my stomach after reading that! I also made the huge mistake of failing to set aside funds for each animal acquired for vet bills. I am still making payments on my Master Card and was treating my turtles from paycheck to paycheck after I felt I could not charge another dollar. I also failed to give a heads-up to the vets at UCD. They were as overwhelmed with the sheer number of ill animals I had as I was. And what I feel is one of my biggest mistakes was taking on too many animals-and not just the Flowerbacks. I was wisely advised by Dr. Keith Benson to re-home all the species I wasn't truly interested in as a project, and to re-home all individuals that weren't going to be part of a breeding group. This meant that I re-homed almost all my North American box turtles and those Horsfield torstoises that I didn't need for my breeding group. I have put a stop to taking on everyone else's unwanted turtles, but offer instead the addresses of adoption lists.

My next project was to get a greenhouse set up for the Flowerbacks to move into, and now I have a temperature-controlled environment for them.  The individuals are set up in groups based on subspecies and age. Subspecies' validity and geographical variation is another headache with these turtles, but I have given up on the breeding aspect of keeping them for now, hoping to merely acclimate them and get them to survive.
I would like to thank the vets of the Avian/ Exotic Department at UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. Drs. Michelle Hawkins, Keith Benson, Shannon Ferrell, Lisa Tell, and-recently-Drs. Paul Gibbons and Jennifer Graham. I can't thank them enough for their efforts towards treating my animals, helping me trouble shoot, pointing out the most obvious blunders (thanks, Keith!), and flat out listening to me cry in frustration both in person and on the phone. My heartfelt thanks  to all of you for your help!

Editor's note: Sharon's work with her C. galbinifrons continues. Her groups have stabilized and she, like many keepers of imperiled Asian turtle species, hopes to eventually propagate them in captivity.

______End Part 1_____  Go to Part 2

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