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Burmese Brown Tortoise Manouris emys

Adult Burmese Brown Tortoises, with youthful visitor in a rainstorm
Adult Burmese Brown Tortoises, with youthful visitor in a rainstorm. Each tortoise is at least 60 years of age and can be expected to live 150 years or more years. This pair has produced over 40 living young in 8 years.

Glasgow Zoopark has an enviable reputation for captive-breeding Burmese Brown tortoises.

The female Burmese Brown tortoise chooses to lay her eggs in piles of rotting grass, left by the keepers specially for this purpose in the outside enclosure. We erected a small greenhouse in the enclosure, making sure it was raised up about 60 cm above the ground to ensure the glass was tortoise proof!Under the greenhouse we place a large pile of coarse compost. The female tortoise carefully gathers the compost together over a few days, constantly checking the temperature by poking her head down into the compost at intervals. When she finds the right conditions, she lays a clutch of about 40 eggs. After a surprisingly short incubation period of only 56 days the eggs hatch. (Mediterranean tortoises take about the same length of time to hatch but are much smaller eggs; the Elongated tortoise eggs take about 150 days.) This followed on observations at Honolulu Zoo which showed that the females gathered leaf litter and other loose vegetation into a mound which composed down generating the heat necessary to incubate the eggs. If the female cannot find a suitable site she may retain the eggs too long and they will cease to be viable.

After laying, instead of wandering off until the next time like most tortoises, the Burmese Brown female patrols the nest site, evidently on guard. Because of our damp climate, we have to move the eggs to our incubator room, but her behaviour begs the question - just how long does she remain on guard? Is it until the smell dissipates, or does she remain until the young are hatching and perhaps even (in the manner of crocodilians) assist in some way - possibly by clearing away some of the overlying compost?

The eggs are slightly larger than table-tennis balls, and the newly hatched tortoises are extremely small and need very careful rearing if they are to survive and develop properly.

The biggest threat to the Burmese Brown tortoise, which in the wild ranges from Assam in India eastward to Burma, down through western Thailand and on south through Malaysia as far as Sumatra and Java, is capture for food.


Seventeen years ago we acquired our first giant tortoise, a Burmese Brown from South East Asia. Once we had de-parasitised it, we set about trying to find a mate. Gradually, in ones and twos, often from Customs seizures at London Heathrow Airport, we built our group up to the present total of five breeding adults.

3 year-old Burmese Brown tortoise (Testudo emys)

Eight years ago the first clutch of eggs was laid. This species is unusual in that the female - uniquely - lays her eggs in a mound of rotting vegetation and then remains in the vicinity for two or three days after laying. The clutch of eggs is large - up to 44 eggs in some instances, each the size of a soft golf ball.

At Glasgow Zoopark we remove the eggs and incubate them artificially in our Incubation Room in the Tropical House. The incubators were all, originally, human baby incubators from West of Scotland hospitals which were donated to us as technically obsolete (insufficient ventilation for human babies, apparently) many years ago. Manufactured by Vickers, we have to service them ourselves (cannibalising some for spares where necessary).

The tortoise eggs are separated and placed on a substrate of sterilised vermiculite in plastic lunch boxes covered in a layer of cling film. The boxes are weighed every two days to measure the degree of water loss (which must be regulated if deformed young are to be avoided).

After only 60 days the eggs hatch. After only 10 days or so of incubation it is easily possible to see if any eggs are infertile. Out of the current clutch of 32 eggs, (44 laid) only one is infertile.

Over the past eight years we have hatched five clutches of eggs and have 36 young tortoises, ranging in size from 15 cm in length downwards. The adults are 40 cm in length and some weight about 50 kilos.

We would be interested to hear about other instances of successful breeding of this species.

Photos by Andy Smyth, Photographer. ©

Case study of Nesting Patterns of Burmese Browns


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