Have you ever wondered what goes into feeding our animal collection? In this blog I will talk about what our food needs are, where the food comes from, and some ways I am working on to reduce costs and our dependence on outside sources of food by working toward producing as much as possible in-house.
Once a week I go to the grocery store to buy food for our animals. Mangoes, papayas, grapes, apples, oranges, sweet potatoes, squash, broccoli, tomatoes, strawberries, melon, seasonal fruit, canned cat food, and greens are typically on the menu. This spring I will be working with Horticulture to grow a variety of greens such as kale, Swiss chard, and dandelions. A variety of fresh, nutritious greens are vital to maintaining the health of our radiated tortoises and several of these varieties are not available where I shop.
To feed our seed-eating birds I buy white millet, millet sprays, wild bird seed, and duck food from the feed mill. For our nectar-drinking birds I buy Quiko nectar.
The left-over food waste is composted daily in our worm bin. The red wigglers that live in the compost are small but numerous and are a favorite treat and nutritionally significant for the box turtles.
I keep and breed several different feeder insects to feed to our animals. The first are several species of tropical roaches. They do double duty as creature feature subjects and as food for our bullfrogs and tenrecs.
Adult crickets are the main food of the chameleons, plated lizards, and bullfrogs. To cover their needs, I buy crickets one thousand at a time from a cricket farm. During the cold days of the winter the crickets occasionally show up very cold or sometimes completely frozen. While the farms will replace lost crickets the delay means that the feeding schedule is disrupted and if we are in a protracted cold stretch there may be a delay before the farm will guarantee live arrival again. Shipping costs have also gone up substantially in recent years and now are more than the crickets themselves.
We recently received a pair of young chameleons, who needed smaller than normal crickets to eat. This means I would have to order an extra box of smaller crickets. When I need to feed extremely small animals, such as baby chameleons or dart frogs, I need very small crickets, called ‘pinheads’. If I buy 1000 pinhead crickets they are the same price as adult crickets, despite being able to fit in about 2 or 3 tablespoons. When I buy adult crickets they generally have not just reached adulthood but have been adults for a week or two. Since adult crickets only live for several weeks this means that they need to be used quickly or they will begin dying of old age.
To address these issues I have begun breeding my own crickets. To begin I put together an egg laying box which consists of a moist medium in a plastic food storage container with a screen lid on it. The female crickets can lay eggs through the screen by sticking their long ovipositors through it into the medium. The screen protects the eggs from being eaten by other crickets. I placed this egg box in with a new shipment of crickets and leave it there for several days. I then put the egg box in its own enclosure and soon after baby crickets will begin to emerge. Crickets take at least 6-8 weeks to mature and during that time I repeat the process with new shipments. After a couple months the oldest crickets are old enough to begin laying eggs and you have a complete cycle going.
It is important to keep the cricket enclosures clean so that you don’t attract Phorid flies. These flies look like fruit flies but are carnivorous and will lay their own eggs in your egg boxes. The fly larvae will eat all the cricket eggs and instead of baby crickets you will get baby flies.
To feed our dart frog collection I breed fruit flies. Other than pinhead crickets they are the only appropriately sized prey items that are easy to breed. Twice per week animal care staff create 12 new fruit fly cultures. We use flightless fruit flies which have been bred for genetics classes and are much easier to use than their flying cousins. The life cycle of these flies takes about a month. The flies are cultured in plastic tubes with fly food, a plastic mesh, and a foam stopper. To make a new culture you mix the fly food (which is basically potato flakes) with water and put a tablespoon of it into the tube. You then add several grains of yeast. This will inhibit bacteria and mold from growing which would prevent the flies from breeding. You then add a piece of plastic mesh which gives the flies something to climb on so they do not drown in the moist food at the bottom of the tube. Lastly you add a dozen or so adult flies and plug the tube with a foam plug. Within a week you can see the tiny fly larvae swimming in the food. After about 2 weeks new flies will begin to hatch and the culture will continue producing flies for another 2 weeks before it is broken down and the process can start again.
Animal Care Specialist
Matt Edwards, Animal Care Specialist, has been providing for our tropical animals and arthropods since the biomes opened in 2003. As a youth Matt first expressed his fascination for animals tending to chickens, goats and dairy cattle as a farm hand. He then added professional experience by earning an Associate of Arts and Sciences from Lakeland CC. When not caring for chameleons and leaf-cutter ants, Matt enjoys relaxing with his pets Henry the Pomeranian and Petunia the Tortoise.