One of the most common questions asked of me, and a cause for concern among many new breeders, is which incubator to buy or use. Let me state up front: There is no magic brand of incubator! There seems to be a common mindset that if the "right" incubator is used, then chondro egg incubation will be greatly simplified. This is just not so...GTP eggs will die inside a $6000 Forma Scientific incubator as quickly as they will in a Styrofoam Hovabator if the parameters for successful incubation are violated. However, there is now an excellent reptile egg incubator available, and at a very reasonable price for the performance. These are the precision Avey Inc. incubators, available in two sizes.
The most important characteristic of any incubator and its electrical components is consistency. Consistency is the term used to describe how much temperature fluctuation a given incubator will allow, and is largely determined by several factors, including the design and materials used in making it, the environment it is operating in, and the quality of the thermostat and other electronics. This is definitely not to be confused with accuracy, which is the term used to describe how close to a calibrated standard any thermostat or thermometer is. The most accurate thermometer in the world isn't much good if the incubator it is monitoring allows too much temperature fluctuation. When people ask which incubator is most accurate, what they really should be asking is which one is most consistent. The Avey units are stable to within one tenth of a degree Celcius, making them well-suited for incubating GTP eggs.
Consistency is the most important factor when building or buying an incubator. I would consider any fluctuation in temperature greater than 0.3 of a degree to be a problem. What this means in practical application is that if I want to have a clutch of eggs incubating at 31.5 C, I want my incubator to hold the egg temps between 31.2 and 31.5 all the time. Any brand or design of incubator will be more consistent if it is placed in a thermally stable environment. The more the ambient temperature changes around the incubator, the harder the incubator must work to hold a steady temperature itself. Also, the ambient temp should be at least 10 degrees F. cooler than the desired incubator setting. This will ensure the incubator will always be "working", rather than cycling on and off, which can introduce fluctuation.
The thermostat used to control the incubator temperature must be consistent as well. Make sure to use a proportional type thermostat, one that "trickles" electrical current to the heater, rather than the kind that merely cycle on and off. Helix Basic System thermostats work well. Don't use the Helix DBS-1000 as these can't be programmed with enough accuracy for chondro eggs. Wafer type thermostats, such as are commonly supplied with cheap incubators, should be avoided. The Avey incubators have dual heating elements and digital microprocessor controls for accuracy and reliability.
I use a high quality, lab grade mercury thermometer to calibrate all my other instruments and thermostats. You should know that most thermostats and thermometers are not accurate enough for chondro eggs unless calibrated. However, I highly value my thermometers that have been found to be consistent, regardless of how accurate they may or may not be. As long as they are consistent, I can factor out the small margin of error when using them.
The incubators I have used for years are not complicated. They are made of melamine, with wire shelves and a chick brooder heater installed in the bottom. These were designed as colubrid egg incubators, and originally used fans, also in the bottom, to circulate air. Now used exclusively for chondros, I don't run the fans. The incubator on the left is used for artificial incubation, and the larger unit doubles as an artificial incubator or as a brooding incubator for females in nest boxes. Humidity is supplied and controlled by placing tubs of water on shelves not occupied by eggs. The water tubs also act as a heat sink, providing thermal stability and a quick recovery of temperature when the door is opened. These incubators are low tech, but they work well, and hold temps consistently within 0.1 of a degree C. These incubators are housed in a small temperature controlled room.
CARE AND FEEDING OF NEONATES
Once the babies hatch I set them up in shoe box tubs with paper towels on the bottom, a small water dish, and a perch. A heat gradient of 82-86F is maintained by heat tape under the tubs. Plastic coat hangers cut to length and held at right angles with cable ties make good, easy-to-clean perches. Do not disturb the new hatchlings until they shed for the first time, usually 10-12 days after the hatch date. Do keep the paper towels damp and the humidity high, as the little guys are thin skinned and dehydrate easily.
After they shed you can begin working on getting them to feed, and this is the step that separates a true breeder from someone who dumps poorly started babies on unsuspecting customers, or brokers them off to dealers. Learning to feed baby chondros is a learned art, but it is important to master the techniques involved if you want to be a responsible breeder.
Some of the babies will usually eat the first or second time you try them, although it may take many attempts per session before they will hold and swallow. Thaw out some frozen mice pinkies in hot tap water, and offer them one at a time to the new hatchlings after they shed. You will need to provoke strikes from the babies by pestering them with the pinky held in 12" forceps. After many misses and drops, the baby will bite and hold the pink. Freeze until the baby has committed to swallow. The use of a little scent on the nose of the pink may help with babies who will strike but not hold on. I have the best luck with baby chick down, and I keep one in the freezer for this purpose. Gerbil, hamster, lizard, or other things will work at times. Always make a note on the data cards you are keeping if a baby responds to a scent animal so you will know which one to use the next feeding. Never feed baby chondros whole frogs, lizards, etc as these are often parasitized. Use them for scenting pinkies instead.
I can usually get about 80% of a given clutch to eat on the first or second try. Work with troublesome babies once a week or so, when you are relaxed and have adequate time and patience to commit to the task. Don't pester babies day after day or you will over-stress them. For much more about feeding neonates, order my book The Complete Chondro. No book or web site is a substitute for learning yourself, but the tips and photos in the book will help you get started correctly.
Feeding hatchlings can be the most frustrating aspect of breeding GTPs. So to review:
1/ Tease and/ or irritate the baby into striking at a warm pinky. Poking, prodding, light pinching, blowing in the face of the baby, pressing lightly on the neck, are all techniques that may work. Usually the first meals are eaten from an angry strike response and not from a hunger response.
2/ Hold the pink in long forceps, and present it in such a way as to cause the snake to grasp the head when it bites. If the baby bites and lets go repeatedly keep trying. Often it takes just one lucky moment for all to go right, after many failed attempts.
3/ Allow the baby to eat where it can hang down with it's food item and not hit the bottom of the tub or cage. This can be a big key to success.
4/ The use of scent on the nose of a washed pinky can work. I have the best success with chick down, but lizard, "Lizard Maker", gerbil fur, hamster fur, and bird blood can all work.
5/ If the baby starts to run away or stops striking after repeated attempts to induce it, try later. Overly stressed babies seldom eat during that session.
6/ Try different times of the day or night, and always work in dim lighting.
7/ Assist feed pieces of mouse or rat tail, or very small pinks, to animals that refuse to eat for more than 8 weeks after hatching. It is better to try this than to let a baby starve.
The good news is that after a few feedings the babies usually begin to feed aggressively. Once they do, it's all down hill! It is extremely rewarding to watch the offspring from your own breeding efforts grow and change into beautiful adults.