Living in a shell. The African spurred tortoise is the largest mainland tortoise, easily reaching 30 inches (76 centimeters) in length and well over 100 pounds (45 kilograms) in heft. Some males even reach 200 pounds (90 kilograms)! It is surpassed only by the island dweller tortoises from Aldabra and Galápagos.
This tortoise is a popular pet; it is bred and sold throughout the US, but as cute as the babies are, they grow quickly and, as mentioned, get extremely large. Many owners find them to be unmanageable and in need of a new home. They are curious, intelligent animals with lively personalities, especially when young. It is also called the sulcata tortoise, spurred tortoise, and African spur thigh tortoise.
Turtles and tortoises are a very old group of reptiles, going back about 220 million years. Of all the animals with backbones, turtles are the only ones that also have a shell, made up of 59 to 61 bones covered by plates called scutes, which are made of keratin like our fingernails. The turtle cannot crawl out of it because the shell is permanently attached to the spine and the rib cage. The shell’s top is called the carapace, and the bottom is the plastron. Turtles can feel pressure and pain through their shells, just as you can feel pressure through your fingernails.
Turtle or tortoise? It depends on who you ask or where you are in the world, but most people recognize tortoises as terrestrial or land-loving with stubby feet (better for digging than swimming) and a heavy, dome-shaped carapace. Aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles are known as just that, turtles. Turtles tend to have more webbed feet (but not always) and their shells are more flat and streamlined.
Given the sizzling hot climate where it lives—where days can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius)—this tortoise digs dens up to 10 feet (3 meters) deep to recline in during the heat of the day. These underground havens are significantly cooler than the air above ground, dipping into the 70s (20s Celsius). These dens are often the only respite for other animals as well, so they reuse abandoned tortoise burrows.
Going green. In their native habitat, these tortoises eat grasses, flowers, weeds, and cacti. Like all tortoises, they are herbivores; excessive protein and lack of proper lighting, diet, calcium, and vitamin D3 can lead to irregular bone growth and carapace deformities. Our sulcatas are fed chopped greens, Bermuda hay, and Mazuri tortoise diet pellets.
This tortoise can go weeks without food or water, and when they find a water source it can drink up to 15 percent of its body weight!
The spurred tortoise is most active during the rainy season between July and October. It is crepuscular in habit, meaning it leaves the den to forage at dawn and at dusk. It warms itself in the morning sun to raise its body temperature after the chill of night. The tortoise will become inactive during extreme temperatures and will hole up in an underground den. A sulcata tortoise could die of hyperthermia if it falls on its back during the heat of the day.
In captivity, these tortoises require a spacious, well-heated, dry terrarium of solid structure, as they are quite strong and very active. They are capable of running and burrowing quite well.
Breeding occurs anytime between June and the following March, though it is thought to be more common after the rains from September to November. Males become aggressive and can be seen plowing into one another to flip over the competition. They will ram and bite other tortoises while uttering grunts, croaks, and whistles. They are very vocal during breeding.
After mating, the female will dig four or five nests before she decides which one will best suit her clutch of 15 to 30 eggs. (On average, she lays an egg every three minutes.) She covers the eggs, where they will incubate for around eight months. Hatchlings are feisty and aggressive toward one another.
You can help conserve these ancient reptiles by being a good steward of the Earth. Simple practices like saving water, not littering, and using your own reusable grocery bags and coffee cups all help to keep habitats clean and healthy. And never release pet animals back into the "wild" as their survival can be in peril, as well as the health and well-being of existing native species.
Range: This tortoise is found throughout Kenya and Tanzania.
Habitat: Inhabits thorn scrub and savannas with rocky outcrops (kopjes) where the tortoise can hide.
Characteristics: It is a small, flat tortoise with a flexible shell. The shell has openings between the bony plates, making it much lighter and not as rigid as in other tortoises, and has a flexible bridge (connecting the plastron and carapace) to allow it to be flattened slightly as the tortoise seeks shelter in rock crevices. Individuals are brown, with radiating yellow markings on the shell. The lighter, flexible shell does not provide as much protection as a typical tortoise shell, so they spend much of their time among rocks and in crevices for protection.
Behavior: The pancake tortoise spends much of its time among the rocks, where it is provided shelter. It is mainly active in the morning, emerging to bask and to feed. It generally only emerges from shelter for about an hour at a time, and is quite mobile and active during that time. When threatened, it will run to a crevice and use its legs to wedge itself as deeply inside as it can, remaining until the danger is gone.
Reproduction: Breeding occurs in January and February in the wild, though it may occur year-round in captivity. Egg-laying usually commences in the summer, with females laying 1-2 eggs at a time in loose, sandy soil. A female may produce more eggs every 6 weeks over the season. Eggs are about 2 inches long and about 1 inch wide, and hatch after four to six months.
Interesting Facts: The pancake tortoise is thought to be the fastest tortoise and the best climber, due to the lightness of its shell. Rather than ducking into its shell for protection, when threatened it will run for shelter in the rocks. The shell of the pancake tortoise is very flat, which makes it easier for the tortoise to right itself when overturned. They overturn frequently, due to their habit of climbing on and over rocks. These tortoises are surprisingly social, and get along well in a group as long as there is enough food for all. As many as ten tortoises have been found sharing the same crevice.
Conservation: The wild population of pancake tortoises is declining due to collection for the pet trade. It is currently illegal to import wild-caught tortoises, although captive-bred tortoises are available. Since they are dependent on rocky outcrops for shelter, populations of tortoises can become isolated easily, and are vulnerable to being harvested below sustainable numbers. Their reproductive rate is low. Populations that have been harvested for the pet trade appear to be made up mostly of juveniles (which are harder to find and collect), whereas unharvested populations have a higher percentage of adult individuals and higher population density.