Turtles are great! The Pond Gnome has lots of clients who adore their turtle pets. And just like any pet, turtles need certain conditions to keep them happy, healthy, and safe. We don’t profess to be herpetologists by any stretch, but we can help with some basics for our area of the country, as well as some references for more information.
Most Common Breeds Kept in Arizona
Turtles are well-adapted to our desert climate, and most species will live about 30 years given a proper habitat and diet. The most common turtle species we see in backyard ponds are the Red-Eared Slider. They are native to the southeastern United States and northeastern Mexico.
The second most commonly seen backyard turtle is the Mississippi Map Turtle, which is native to the Mississippi watershed, as the name suggests. These two species likely make up 80% of the pet turtles in Arizona.
Our native species is the Arizona Mud Turtle. There are three species of mud turtles that are found in and near creeks, rivers, lakes, stock tanks, and ciénegas in central and southeastern Arizona. Mud Turtles can be relatively common in their preferred habitats. A hunting license is required to lawfully collect and possess Mud Turtles in Arizona.
Security and Safety for Their Health and our Native Environment
The most important thing to remember about keeping exotic pets like turtles, is to keep them properly contained. Escaped exotic turtles do a lot of damage to our native species. Allowing them to escape into natural rivers and streams is an environmental disaster of sorts.
Proper fencing designed to contain them from both climbing out, and digging out, is crucial. Also keep in mind they are not the top of the food chain. If you live in an area with racoons, you must also keep the racoons out of your turtle habitat, or build you turtle pond large enough for your turtle pets to escape predation.
Turtles are omnivores. They eat whatever they can catch or find, including insects, small fish, frogs, and many aquatic plants, as well as dead fish or frogs. This makes an organic water garden a utopian environment for them! Just make sure it is large and diverse enough to handle their foraging activities, and the biological filters are designed to handle the ammonia production of your turtle pets.
Of course, lots of folks like to hand-feed their turtles various veggies. We know of a few really spoilt turtles whose owners interact with them every single day with treats and attention, and swear that they come when called.
Turtles will spend most of their life in the water. When active, they can hold their breath under water for up to 30 minutes! During the colder months, they can enter a state of torpor and remain under water for months at a time! Still, they should have a sunny rock to bask on in the middle of their pond where they can feel safe while soaking up the warm sunshine. They should also have a space of terrestrial dirt, and maybe event composted mulch and a shrub or two, to hang out under once in a while.
Turtles need a body of water to hang out in to stay hydrated. They cannot survive long without a healthy, organic, body of water. Having a filtered pond big enough to swim in, to hide in, and within which to forage is optimal. If you relegate them to an enclosure with a small water tub, know that the water in the tub will need to be changed frequently as turtles defecate mostly in the water. Thus, a properly built filtration system designed to handle their output is essential if you want to also enjoy that pond aesthetically.
Responsible Turtle Parenting
As with any pet, you should design and build a good habitat for the creature before bringing it home. Many folks get a turtle on a whim, or by gift, and don’t have a good environment in place, causing suffering, and sometimes even death. All the good intentions in the world fall short of proper planning.
Resources for More TURTLE Information
Arizona Game and Fish Department: http://www.gf.state.az.us/
Arizona Herpetological Association: http://www.azreptiles.com
Online field guide to reptiles and amphibians of Arizona: http://www.reptilesofaz.com/
Reptiles of Arizona: http://reptilesofaz.org/turtles.htm
Butterfly koi are beautiful, elegant fish; however, quite a few Koi connoisseurs think of them as mutts? Some go so far as to say they’re not even Koi! Let’s take a look at how butterfly Koi originated so you can decide for yourself if you think these long-finned creatures are worthy of your pond.
Butterfly Koi Origins
In the early 80’s, a population of common brown & gray carp with long fins were found in a series of canals and ditches in Indonesia. A company in New York took an interest and brought the fish into the United States and sold a few. They did not sell well because most fish lovers thought they were ugly. However, an enterprising and curious group of breeders at Blue Ridge Fish Hatchery placed an order for a dozen of these fish to see what exactly they were. Ugly, with long fins, is what they discovered.
Rather than call it quits on these new-found fish, the breeders decided to breed them with their finest, regular-fin Koi and made several discoveries:
Size and Value of Butterfly Koi
As Butterfly Koi grow, they become more impressive because the fins keep growing until the blood vessels can no longer sustain further growth. The older the fish, the longer and more impressive the finnage. So, a full-grown Butterfly Koi looks like a long, slinky dragon moving through the water. Their barbels (whiskers) even grow long and can fork into elaborate designs.
Butterfly Koi seem to lack some of the body size of regular Koi, but the overall fish can run as long as 36 to 40 inches in the right pond with plenty of food. Over the years, Butterfly Koi will become broad, healthy fish with great personalities, given proper care. They are graceful and pleasant to view in the pond.
Butterfly Koi Patterns
Since pattern means a great deal to the value of a regular Koi, stands to reason that a good, recognized pattern with bright colors would increase the value of a Butterfly Koi, too. But there are a few noticeable elements – such as fins. While a Butterfly Koi is more valuable when it has a properly defined and positioned pattern in the color, beautiful fins can often make even a poorly patterned fish look beautiful.
In addition, lemon and platinum ogons (solid color) in the Butterfly category are amazing when they reach adulthood. When you grow a metallic yellow or platinum ogon Butterfly Koi to an impressive, large size, their body movement is more graceful and slow. The fins are long, but the uniform gold or neon-white color is brilliant in the water and such fish look like fireballs or comets moving through the water with their fins streaming behind them.
At one time, we had one of each, named Moonlight and Sunshine. Sadly, they fell victim to a hungry predator before we put protection in place.
Black BeautY BUTTERFLY KOI
Black Butterfly Koi are seldom found and the rarest is the doitsu, karasu Butterfly. This fish is black, has no scales, and possesses long fins. It looks truly magical in the water, especially when it comes up to the surface of the pond during feeding time.
Black Butterflies grow up and become very large because their genes are not as strained as some of the brighter colored fish. And if they have no scales, the body is a glistening jet-black color. The fins keep growing until the fish is broad, and streams like black robes behind it, reminiscent of a jet-black dragon.
Why Are the Fins Long ON BUTTERFLY KOI?
So how did the fins of a Butterfly Koi get so long? It’s actually the result of an aberration causing the fin length gene to fail in turning off. The gene is a dominant mutation with recessive lethal effects. In fish, the fins are supposed to grow to a genetically specified length, then stop growing.
In the high fin mutation, the fins don’t get the “stop growth” message and they keep on growing. This happens in individual fish of many species from time to time. A few notable examples are Siamese Fighting Fish, Simpson’s Hi Fin Swordtails, Long Fin Oscars, and Long Fin Black Tetras. Any time the mutation is encountered and identified; it is bred into a species to see if it would make that species more commercially appealing.
Like any other Koi, the fins of the Butterfly Koi are made up of dozens of rays of cartilage that radiate outward and support the fin. These rays generally grow very straight, but past the point of normal length, they can grow wavy. The fish that grow straight rays even into the lengthier parts of the tail are more impressive looking and therefore more valuable.
Handle BUTTERFLY KOI with Care
One problem with Butterfly Koi is that they are often handled the same way as regular Koi. Broken fins and tails are par for the course by the time the fish is an adult. So, it’s common to see bends and waves in the fins and tail of Butterfly Koi partly because of growing that way, but also due to netting damage as a juvenile.
As an adult, a split tail or fin often does not heal well and remains split. This is irrelevant to the casual observer, the impact of the fish is the same, but you might notice variations in fin quality, and you may decide to choose one fish over the other based on that observation.
Are BUTTERFLY KOI Truly Koi?
The answer to this question depends on who you ask. Japanese breeders call Butterflies “Hirenagagoi,” while regular Koi are called “Nishikigoi.” They won’t judge Butterflies using traditional criteria because they’re too slender, the ratio of fin-to-body is disproportionate, and they don’t exhibit color patterns in the way traditional Koi do.
There are many keepers of traditional Koi who actually find Butterfly Koi to be superior to normal Koi. And today, many of Japan’s prestigious breeders breed them today. Butterfly Koi are very popular in Europe and North America and you can find them at most fish-retailing locations.
If you haven’t added this fish to your pond yet, this might be the year to do so! You’re sure to enjoy their elegance as they glide through your pond beneath the lily pads.
Koi people tend to fall into two categories: those that love keeping them as pets in their pond, and those that collect them like a prized car that’s only driven on Sundays or parked at car shows. There are actually quite a few analogies that can be made between Koi and cars. And since we’re kind of into cars, we’ll use those analogies shamelessly.
The sedan represents the attractive, domestic Koi of good quality. It’s a healthy fish that has been spared a long trip from overseas. The bloodlines of most domestic fish are short, and the classic ancestral stock is not long ago. So, the fish are sturdy and dependable. But with a lack of refinement comes a less refined look. Domestic, durable Koi of average to good quality make wonderful, robust pets, and are an enjoyable addition for your pond as wet pets.
THE SPORTS CAR
If you’re looking for something fancier, you’ll generally pay more to own it. Typically imported from Asia, these Koi are more expensive than their domestic counterparts, but in general, they’re prettier. Their good looks, plus the cost of shipping, is why they’re more expensive.
The Handmade Italian Sports CaR
There is a breed of Koi owner who doesn’t care about price; they simply need to have the best. There are handcrafted fish available in Japan that are finer than any other Koi you can buy anywhere else in the world. These fish are usually large and have already won a Koi show in Japan.
What’s interesting is that when the driver of the handmade Italian sports car drives down the road, people only marvel at the value of the car – not the skills of the driver.
The grand champion Koi is no different. It’s a profoundly expensive fish that is bred, raised, and shown by a Japanese craftsman, then sold to a trophy hunter in America. No skills are called upon to buy a fish that already comes with a trophy. Only a fat wallet.
The American Collector Muscle Car
These performance vehicles are lovingly handcrafted in America. They’re fast and beautiful. The comparison in Koi is the hand-selected small import or domestic Koi that goes on to take a trophy in a local show. In this case, the owner of the fish chose it based on its assessed future quality and they raised it to sub-adult or adult status and put it in a koi show. Victory in a Koi show with a fish you chose and raised by hand is a testament to your ability to judge fish, to identify quality, and to provide the kind of husbandry needed to produce a champion from a small fish you hoped was a diamond.
The Economy Car
Koi breeders have been known to sell the poorest of their culled baby Koi into the fish bait market, and as feeder fish for consumption by larger fish in pet shops. The common alternative is to either bury the fish, or sell them as “pond grade” Koi.
Beginner Koi collectors sometimes think simply being orange is enough to be a decent Koi. The all-yellow Koi, called the Lemon Ogon, is wildly popular and easy to produce. It could be considered one of the finest of the economy cars because it is abundant and not unpleasant to own.
There’s nothing wrong with economy cars, or economy Koi, but exceptional colors or patterns don’t generally occur in this group. These fish are certainly pleasant to own – they just won’t win a show.
What Does It All Mean?
What this means is that there are different types of Koi and, as you may have assumed, there are different types of Koi owners.
And here’s the interesting part: while the owners of economy Koi are unlikely to expect all Koi to be low cost and lower quality – the converse is not true of some of the folks who keep and show the finest Koi. There’s a big difference in the way Koi need to be kept, and the way they are kept by the Koi aficionados. Thus, when choosing a pond construction method, knowing which one you are will determine how the pond needs to be built. In fact, it’s one of the first questions we ask when someone calls us about building them a “Koi pond.”
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Technical information for this article supplied by our friend and colleague, Bernie Kerkvliet of Skyland Ponds in Lake Arrowhead, California.
What is a Wetland?
Ecologically speaking, it is known as an Ecotone. An Ecotone is a transition zone between two diverse communities. It contains organisms native to each overlapping community, as well as organisms characteristic to the Ecotone itself.
In a wetland, life is very dense and variable. Every ounce of water from a wetland environment contains millions of organisms that make up a highly diverse community.
The Plantonic community includes algae or phytoplankton, zooplankton, and bacteria. Together, they are the plants, animals, and scavengers of this unique, aquatic ecosystem. The scavenger-like plantonic bacteria, along with fungi, clean up the corpses, wastes, and organic debris present in the water. The algae transforms sunshine and inorganic nutrients present in the water into food so it can grow and reproduce. In a nutshell, the bacteria, fungi, and phytoplankton all feed on impurities in the water and clean it as it flows thru the wetland. These are the base consumers of the ecosystem, or the base of the food chain. The amazing thing is the phytoplankton and bacteria can produce another generation in a matter of hours to days. Pretty cool, huh?
Simply put, the phytoplankton represents the grass and herbaceous plants in a meadow. The zooplankton which are protozoans, rotifers, and tiny crustaceans are the animals that feed on the plants in the meadow (Phytoplankton).
This basis for the food chain in turn provides food for insects, fish fry, larvae, etc. Aquatic plants also get their nutrients from the water and decomposing sediment in the wetland. The food chain continues to grow to include larger fish, frogs, reptiles, and eventually mammals and birds.
What do Wetlands Do?
Wetlands are also good for slowing the water down. In a constructed wetland, we accomplish this by the size of pump supplying the wetland. Slowing the water down allows for sediment to settle out. In nature, after hundreds, or even thousands, of years, sedimentation continues until a meadow is formed. The sedimentation process prevents soil from washing downstream. Since the water is almost stationary, it allows water to percolate down into the water table.
In a constructed wetland, the nutrient rich sediments are periodically pumped out on to the surrounding landscape.
The sedimentation process in both cases produces water clarity.
Wetlands, whether natural or man-made, are the most effective water purification systems on earth.
Where do Wetlands Come From?
Wetlands can be created in many ways. They can be built by rivers in slow moving waters and deltas that create wetlands. Lakes and landlocked basins can develop into wetlands, as well.
Aquascape has developed a very effective arificial wetland system that is very effective. Whenever water filtration is required, we prefer to use a constructed wetland if possible. This does require a bit of extra room on the property, but the results are well worth it – and it’s pretty!
One of the best ways nature has for building wetlands, man has destroyed in multiple ways. The best natural builder of wetlands is the beaver. All the industrious work the beaver has done in the northern hemisphere, man has slowly destroyed all in the name of two things: a hat and “progress. “ We hesitate to go too far into the history of the fur trade and beaver felt hats that became so popular in Europe, but the fact is that’s what started it all. But let’s fast forward to a little more current time in North America.
The total land area in the contiguous United States is 2.96 million square miles. It is estimated that there were some 200 million beavers in the US at the time white man came from Europe. It is also estimated that there were about 300,000 square miles of beaver ponds at that time. Can you imagine the benefits that brought to the land? Better plant and animal biodiversity, slow moving water meant better water percolation and recharge in the water table, flood control, clear unpolluted water -- and those are just some of the macro benefits.
What Can I Do AS JUST A HOMEOWNER?
In the pursuit of fur, hats, farmland, industry, and “progress,” our land is not what it used to be. That is why the work that we do is so important. Each pond, pondless, patio pond, fountainscape, stream, and waterfall we build creates another little island of biodiversity in our individual private back yards.
The bonus is that it also creates ambiance to help us decompress, to bring us back to nature after being “plugged in” all day, to teach our children about the nature world, and to use this natural world to teach a multitude of other subjects from biology to math to art to music, and beyond. And then there’s just the pure enjoyment of a backyard oasis – something that takes minutes per week to maintain, but provides hours upon hours of simple pleasure.
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In a world of “tech neck,” social media, and constant electronic connection, it’s far too easy for kids to overlook nature’s beauty. Beyond being a welcome change of scenery from screens, ponds and outdoor play offer a multitude of other unique benefits for young minds. And now that much of our country is practicing social distancing, it’s even more important to connect with nature.
What’s the Problem?
Research from the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) shows that kids are spending less and less time in the great outdoors. On average, children only spend four to seven minutes of the day in unstructured outdoor play. Compare that to the seven and half hours, on average, that they spend in front of electronic media. The lack of physical activity could put children on the fast track for chronic diseases, including obesity. In 1980, 7% of children ages 6-11 were obese. In 2010, that figure climbed to nearly 18%! The NRPA notes that this could create a troubling national trend for the future of conservation as well as health and wellness, which is a person’s first line of defense against any disease or virus.
Fortunately, there are easy ways to turn this trend around – and now is the time to take action. Having access to a water feature, and the great outdoors in general, affords great ways to get kids outside and moving!
Nature Does a Body Good
Simply being in an outdoor setting benefits developing minds and bodies, especially when contact with their friends is limited – like the world’s current pandemic. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, outdoor play allows children to use all of their senses, which in turn helps them build skills such as spatial awareness and balance. It can also help improve their attention span – a subject of great concern in modern times.
Additionally, studies have shown that outdoor time:
Other benefits of spending time outdoors include:
A confidence boost. Playing outside is a lot less structured than playing indoors, giving kids their power to control their own actions and adventures.
Creativity and imagination. The great outdoors allows kids to think more freely, design their own activities, and approach the world in their unique and creative ways.
Responsibility. Children who are tasked with caring for a living thing, such as a plant or fish, learn what happens if it’s neglected or not cared for properly.
Unique stimulation. While nature seems less flashy and high energy than a video game, it does an amazing job of stimulating the senses. Kids can see, hear, smell, and touch outdoor environments.
Marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols coined the term “blue mind” to refer to the calm, peaceful sense of happiness that is triggered by being in or near water. Being around water gives our overstimulated brains and senses a rest. Creativity thrives in this relaxed state, as the brain is able to make new and unusual connections because it is not overly distracted by visual and auditory stimulation. Our own personal experience with Autistic neighbor children has shown us that the “blue mind” is extremely beneficial for these kiddos.
Nature Is Its Own Classroom
In 2013, Kaneland High School in Maple Park, Illinois, transformed a previously unused outdoor courtyard into a Koi pond with help from Aquascape (The Pond Gnome’s teacher and mentor). Over the course of three days, members of the school’s Student Council, FFA, and Science Club worked to turn the space into a stunning pond.
During the school year, the pond is maintained by students in the school’s horticulture classes, who feed the fish, check the pond’s water level, and tend to the plants. They’ve even added enhancements to the pond area, including additional water plants and building a runoff to help direct water that was coming down from the school’s roof.
Kaneland staff credit the project for not only demonstrating commitment to the school but showing how community partnerships can provide valuable learning experiences. Kaneland’s pond was even featured on an episode of Pond Stars on the Nat Geo Wild network.
The Pond Gnome has been an integral part of creating Urban Wildlife Habitats for various schools around the Valley, including Apache Elementary School, Hidden Hills Elementary School, Desert Harbor Elementary School, Mesa Community College, Scottsdale Community College, etc.
Don’t Forget Fun
There are so many things to love about ponds and streams. There are fish to feed and frogs to find. If they move quietly, they might just discover butterflies resting gently on the plants surrounding the water. And on a hot day, there’s no better feeling than taking off your socks and wading right into the pond or stream.
Here are some ideas we love for fun in the great outdoors:
Have a treasure hunt. Make a short list of things for your children to seek outside. You could even tailor the list to include things found around your pond. How about a plant that grows in water, a shiny rock, or a fish? As they search for items around the pond, they’ll naturally take in its other cool features.
Identify plants and animals. Go online and print out pictures of the plants and animals that make their home in your pond or around your yard. Then head outside with your child and match the pictures you printed to those living things.
Photograph nature. In this instance, technology isn’t totally banned. Have your child use a camera, or even the camera on your phone, to take pictures of the pond and the nature surrounding it. Explore how lighting impacts the photographs, and have some fun playing with the different camera settings.
Create art. Claude Monet was famously inspired to paint water plants – why not your child, too? Bring art supplies outside and encourage your child to sketch or paint the pond.
Try for a “Green Hour”
The National Wildlife Federation encourages families to commit to a “green hour” every day in which children play and learn outdoors in nature. Regular positive experiences with nature also help children develop a lifelong concern for wildlife and the great outdoors, not to mention respect for living things.
Pondless waterfalls and/or streams are a perfect choice for families with very young children. They allow children to enjoy nature in and around the waterfall/stream – birds love to bathe in it and frogs will visit! – without the safety concerns of a pond. A pond can always be added to the waterfall once children are older.
During this time of pandemic concern and social distancing, be sure your kids spend time in nature. Your backyard is a great place to start!
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