It was a landmark month for breeding endangered animals at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park.
The park recently welcomed six baby Galapagos tortoises and an Indian gharial, similar to a crocodile, representing the first time that either species has been successfully bred at the park.
It's also the first time an Indian gharial has been hatched in captivity outside of its native lands.
Senior reptile keeper Lauren Cashman helped incubate and hatch the young tortoises. She said it’s an intensive but rewarding task.
“We monitor the eggs every week ... and watch the development continue on,” she said. “The first time you hold a light up and see a little baby kind of dance around in the egg, that’s really phenomenal.”
The Alligator Farm uses a “Stud Book,” sort of like an animal online dating service, to locate the best mates in North America. This matchmaking helps to keep genetic diversity high, and the risk of health problems from inbreeding as low as possible.
Cashman said 90-year-old first-time mother Michelle had originally laid 16 eggs, eight of which were fertile and six hatching successfully. In the wild, she said a lot of babies do fall prey to larger animals, "but they’re also really good at hiding. Usually, as soon as they hatch out, they go and hide for a couple years until they get bigger.”
The tiny tortoises share a birthday with another young celebrity at the park: the Indian gharial baby. Gharials closely resemble crocodiles but have long, slender snouts with hundreds of needlelike teeth.
“Nobody outside of countries that have these animals in their native range have ever reproduced them in captivity,” said Alligator Farm director John Brueggen. “They’ve been bred in India and Bangladesh and Nepal, but never in the western hemisphere at all.”
Both Galapagos tortoises and Indian gharials have been threatened in the wild by human activities, he said.
Sailors hunted the tortoises for meat and eggs upon arrival on their native Galapagos Islands. The tortoises were also hardy enough to be stored in ship hulls in case provisions ran low.
Gharials require a very specific environment to thrive. Along the banks of Indian rivers, their native sandy habitat is being destroyed as it is collected for use as a construction material.
Gharials are presently listed as critically endangered, which means that it is quite possible that they could disappear in the wild unless something is done.
“We all have to work together,” Brueggen said. “We can’t just breed a couple in a zoo and celebrate, because we hope that out babies could even go back in the wild in the future, but the wild has to be fixed before we can do that.”