Small styrofoam incubators like Hovabator, Little Giant, and Reptibator are popular among tortoise hobbyists. These incubators are reasonably priced and do a good job with tortoise eggs.
Somewhat more expensive are plastic incubators like Juragons or the Exo Terra fridge style incubators. Juragons don’t seem to available much any more and Exo Terras have had mixed reviews.
Golden / Mesopotamian Greek tortoise baby one minute out of the egg. Notice the big fold in the belly. He hasn't straightened out yet. Hova-Bator still air model in the background.
Time tested manual control Hova-Bator (model 1602N) on the right. You have to turn the manual temperature crank left or right to increase / decrease the temperature. Lots of testing involved to get the temperature where you want it, but once's it's set, the temperature is pretty stable.
New generation digital control Little Giant incubator (model 9300) on the left. Temperature is set simply by pushing buttons. :O) As you can see, these two incubators are about equal in size. Neither of these incubators has a fan; they are both still air models.
I use Juragon, Hova-Bator 1602N, and Little Giant 9300 for egg incubation and the Exo Terra unit for Burmese star egg cooling before incubation.
1.) Basic Hova-Bators
One of the most popular small incubators among tortoise hobbyist is the Hova-Bator. It's a simple styrofoam box with a heating element attached to the underside of the lid.
Hova-Bator is actually a bird egg incubator, but it has been used for many years by tortoise breeders with good results. It was invented by an American company, G.Q.F., decades ago.
The thermal air (still air) models with no fan are popular. Hova-Bator still air model 1602N (pic) with a manual temperature controller is the cheapest. Model 1582 has a larger view window, but it's also a bit more expensive. These basic Hova-Bators are quite economical. The 1602N runs on 25 watts.
Pros -- Low price, silent, quite steady once you've set it to the right temperature, ok size inside, reliable, has air holes, easy to find, super lightweight, low wattage, holds humidity well when most air holes are covered and bottom water trays are filled with water.
Cons -- Very tricky manual control for the temperature, no temperature markings, getting the temperate just right takes a lot of trial and error, not easy to switch between different temperatures, not easy to disinfect, not super sturdy (styrofoam), no humidity controls, only heats, does not cool if overheated, no alarms.
2.) Other Hova-Bators
G.Q.F. also manufactures more expensive styrofoam Hova-Bators with fans and/or digital controls as well as large cabinet style incubators (e.g. 1500 series). If you use a bird egg incubator with turning racks, be sure to turn them off for tortoise eggs. Tortoise eggs should NOT be turned during incubation.
In addition to the basic Hova-Bator 1602N, I also have a Hova-Bator Genesis incubator. I love the digital control panel in it. So easy to set and change the temperature! However, the fan unit is quite powerful and causes the whole incubator, especially the lid, to vibrate. I wish this LCD display incubator was available as a still air model or at least had an on/off switch for the fan.
Update: G.Q.F.'s new electronic thermostat Hova-Bator, model 2370, has digital controls. It can be used in either circulated air or still air mode.
1.) Mechanical incubators
Another popular bird egg incubator used by tortoise breeders is the Little Giant still air model #9200 by Miller Manufacturing Company. Just like the Hova-Bator, it's made of styrofoam and has viewing windows in the lid. It has a manual temperature dial and same pros and cons as the basic Hova-Bator.
2.) New digital incubators (update Sep 2014)
In August 2014, Miller Manufacturing Company announced in their blog the release of a new line of digital Little Giant incubators. Three digital models are available: still air incubator #9300, circulated air incubator with a fan #10300, and deluxe incubator with and egg turner #11300. According to the manufacturer, these incubators hold the temperature within one degree of Fahrenheit.
Of these three new incubators, the Little Giant still air model #9300 is probably the best choice for tortoise eggs. This well priced and easy to use styrofoam box incubator has two viewing windows and a LCD display that shows both the temperature and humidity readings. However, the digital control panel adjusts the heat only, not the humidity. Humidity is controlled by adding water to the built-in water channels at the bottom as needed. Per Miller, the humidity reading is most accurate between 60% and 80%; just what's needed for tortoise eggs.
Manufacturer's recommendation is to run the incubator for eight hours before inserting any eggs. This allows the temperature and humidity to level. Also, allow 2-3 hours for the eggs to warm up before making any adjustments.
Zoo Med's ReptiBator is another styrofoam box style incubator with digital controls. As with most incubators, user reviews for this unit are mixed. Mostly the same pros and cons as with Hova-Bator.
Ideally, put the styrofoam incubators in a warm room with a stable temperature above 70 °F and stabilize the incubator temperature before adding any eggs. It can take a day or two of fiddling with the temperature controller to get the heat setting just right.
If you live in a very hot or cold area, or experience frequent power problems, it would be smart to plug the incubator into a battery backup surge protector to shield it from current spikes and power outages.
Keeping eggs in dark during incubation and hatching may be beneficial. You can tape paper over the incubator viewing windows to keep the inside darker.
Important! Do NOT turn tortoise eggs during incubation! Always keep them in the same position.
Caution! As with all incubators, do NOT trust the attached, external temperature display alone. Always check and set the temperature according to a reliable thermometer(s) you have placed inside the incubator.
Popular plastic incubators include the Juragons and small, fridge style incubators like Exo Terra.
1.) Juragon incubators
R-com's digital Juragon incubators are made of plastic and prices vary from around $300 to over $500 depending on the model and seller. Juragons have controls for both temperature and humidity. Some owners have reported problems with the reliability of the humidity controls.
Juragons were trendy in the past and have now become hard to find. Juragon Standard (PX-20R / MX-R90) incubator was probably the most popular model. Mine has been running flawlessly for many years.
Pros -- Ability to automatically control HUMIDITY in addition to temperature is the biggest plus, controls are easy to use, unit looks nice, made of plastic not styrofoam, easy to clean, quite sturdy, quiet.
Cons -- Much more expensive than styrofoam incubators, incubation tray is small, fewer sellers, more difficult to find, only heats, does not cool if overheated, must check water level fairly frequently.
2.) Small fridge style incubators
Small digital incubators that look like tiny refrigerators were popping up everywhere a few years ago. Because these incubators can heat and cool, they are useful for tortoise eggs that require, or benefit from, a cooling period before incubation. The automatic cooling feature also protects eggs from overheating.
Exo Terra's incubator is the most popular of these mini units. Others were sold under names like ReptiPro, Pro MR-148, Herp-Bator, Accu-Temp, and Lucky Reptile Herp Nursery in Europe.
An updated 2nd generation model of the EXo Terra incubator was released in 2013. My 1st generation unit stopped working after a while, but my 2nd generation unit is still operating fine. I now use it as a cooler for my Burmese star tortoise eggs.
Pros -- Looks nice, easy to use, small footprint, heats and cools, prevents overheating, can be used as a cooler to diapause eggs, quiet, easy to clean, lightweight and portable, holds humidity well, can be used as a heated or cooled transport box in the car, only 33W.
Cons -- Very tiny inside, small shelves accommodate only a small number of eggs, top level is a bit warmer than lower level, unit temperature display does not accurately reflect the inside temperature, sealed-in design (no gas exchange), spotty reliability especially with 1st generation models, mixed user reviews.
As with all incubators, you must place at least one reliable thermometer inside the incubator in these fridge style incubators and then adjust the temperature according to that thermometer. It's best to put a thermometer on each shelf you use.
Do NOT trust the incubator's built-in temperature display alone because it can be several degrees higher than the actual temperature in the egg box inside the incubator. You must test your incubator before use to see what the actual readings for that unit are.
For example, to set the top shelf egg box temperature to 86 °F (30 °C) in the Exo Terra, I had to set the unit temperature to 92 °F. The unit display showed a temperature variation of 88-94 °F, but the actual temperature inside the egg box placed on the top shelf stayed at 85.6-86.8 °F.
Doors of totally sealed-in incubators should be opened briefly every so often to allow for gas exchange. Oxygen in and carbon dioxide out! For the same reason, covered egg boxes in the incubator should have perforations.
Again, keeping eggs in the dark during incubation and hatching may be beneficial. You can tape dark paper over the incubator's clear door to keep the inside darker.
If the room temperature fluctuates, having an incubator with an internal fan helps distribute the heat more evenly. In that case, you may have to cover the egg boxes with lids to protect the eggs from excessive drying.
Hatching Burmese star tortoise poking out his little leg. Incubated on coarse vermiculite.
Vermiculite and HatchRite are popular tortoise egg incubation substrates. This hatching baby is a Greek tortoise.
The most popular substrate for star tortoise egg incubation is vermiculite. When purchasing, look for coarse, pure vermiculite that is certified to be asbestos free. During incubation, the gas exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide occurs through the egg shell. Larger grain vermiculite allows for better air flow around the eggs.
Other incubation substrates used with tortoise eggs include perlite, sand, peat moss, and soil. You can also mix substrates, for example, vermiculite and perlite in a 2:1 ratio.
A commercial reptile egg incubation substrate, called HatchRite, is also available. Ingredients are not listed on the bag, but it's thought to be perlite mixed with water retaining particles.
HatchRite is a ready-to-use product. No need to add water to it. After opening, reseal the bag tightly to keep the moisture in the remaining substrate. Since you don't have to worry much about the wetness level in the substrate, using HatchRite has been called the "incubation for dummies" method. :O)
In closed, perforated egg boxes, HatchRite holds humidity very well. For desert species, the humidity level may actually be too high during the first 2-4 weeks of incubation. In that case, you can mix HatchRite with perlite or other dry medium, or remove the egg box lid to lower the humidity a bit. As always, test the product in your incubator before placing eggs on it.
SuperHatch by Repashy is another commercial incubation medium brand. It’s a natural mineral blend that can absorb and hold large amounts of water and has a very slow rate of evaporation. Before use, let it soak in water for a few minutes and then drip dry. It can sterilized by boiling and re-used for years.
No matter what incubation substrate you use, remove the eggs from it once babies start pipping and hatching. Sometimes fresh babies nibble and eat the incubation medium and become seriously, or even fatally, impacted. After pipping, I place hatching babies in small deli little cups lined with wet paper towels. For photos, see the incubation page links below.
Related pages: star incubation, angulate incubation, Greek incubation