(“African Spur Thighed Tortoise”)
and edited by Susan Horton, DVM
Sulcatas are found along the southern edge of the
and created large burrows and tunnels during the dry season to
escape the heat and dry conditions.
This species of tortoise was first imported into the
in 1980 and has become a prolific captive breeding species!
Sadly, there is a decreasing population in the wild due to
habitat destruction and human influence but in captivity there is
an over population. The
Sulcata is listed as a CITES Appendix 2 species which means that
captive bred tortoises can be sold and traded but wild caught
tortoises are strictly protected.
The record weight for a large male Sulcata was over 230
pounds and had a carapace over 2.5 feet long.
As with all animals, Sulcata tortoises grow at individual
rates but all hatchlings and young tortoises grow fast.
The Sulcata is the fastest growing tortoise, especially in
the first five years of life.
In optimal climates this species can easily reach 100
pounds within 15 years. However,
in the Midwestern United States and along the northern East coast
, most stay around 30-50 lbs with few individuals becoming larger
than that. Despite the
different climates these animals are kept in one thing proves the
same across the board, Sulcatas are a hardy species.
Most Sulcatas in captivity have a longevity of 30-50 years
and up to 120 years in the wild.
The carapace of Sulcatas is wider than it is tall.
In the wild, most individuals have a light tan carapace but
dark brown is a common color especially in colder climates.
Sulcatas are called “spur thighed” due to the large
conical projections on the back of the rear legs that act as
another defense against predation.
Below the head there is a gular spike which is an extension
of the plastron and used to flip rivals during courtship.
The Sulcata tortoise has three defense mechanisms.
The first is to retract the limbs under the shell.
The second is to hiss loudly.
If the tortoise is picked up it will urinate copiously
which is the third defense mechanism.
The male Sulcata tortoise has a longer, thicker tail and
the anal scute of the plastron (right by the tail) is wider even
at a young age. The
female has a shorter tail than the male.
Males have a concave plastron for aiding with copulation
and also have larger gular scutes under the head
for flipping rivals.
Sulcata tortoises are diurnal often retreating to shelter
once dark. Logs and
bushes make excellent shelters as do turned over cement mixing
trays with a door cut out, wooden hide boxes, etc.
All enclosures should be tortoise proof.
Solid wood trim or ram resistant bricks are essential for
indoor and outdoor enclosures larger than aquarium tanks.
As the tortoise grows, a custom built wooden enclosure will
Hatchlings can be kept in a 10 gallon tank
and increased in size from there.
Remember, as your tortoise grows he will need a custom
enclosure! This is not
a species that can be kept in aquariums all their lives.
Many people think they will not outgrow their cage like
goldfish. In both
instances, of the tortoise and the goldfish, this is false and
they will continue to grow despite cramped conditions.
As hatchlings grow they will need a two foot by two foot
cage up to a four foot by eight foot cage.
A turtle table is an excellent set-up for hatchlings and
juveniles and many plans for these enclosures can be found on the
Indoor enclosures should be spacious and heated.
Adults will require brick, concrete, and armored glass.
Some people use heated basements or attics where the whole
or at least most of the space can be dedicated to the tortoise
enclosure space should be at least four times the carapace length.
If two animals are being kept together, double the size of
the enclosure and add an additional 10% for each animal after
three tortoises. A
trio of similar sized Sulcatas can be housed together in an
enclosure that measures 16 feet by 16 feet.
Outdoor enclosures should be large, sunny, and protected
from the wind and predators. An
adjoining spacious and heatable building is required if the
tortoise is to remain outdoors year round.
Remember, the driest season in the mid-western
is like the rainy season in its natural African habitat.
Some people use a green house to house their tortoise.
Leopard tortoises can learn to use a rubber flap dog door.
The enclosure should be free of large trees or high shrubs
that will create large areas of shade.
Check with your local authorities before constructing any
outdoor pen as permits may be required.
If the temperature is constantly below 60°F degrees bring
the tortoise inside. The
fence to any out door area should be at least 12-24 inches into
the ground and at least 18-24 inches in height.
A word of caution, escape attempts never cease and these
tortoises will climb wire mesh fences or will tunnel under.
The tunnels can be up to 25 times the length of the
Substrate for young tortoises should be rather simple and
easily cleaned. The
most recommended substrate for juveniles is reptile carpet or
butcher paper with hay on top of it.
Rabbit pellets are frequently used in the pet trade for
hatchlings to juveniles but recently has been found to cause
deformities in these fast growers due to improper positioning of
limbs in hatchlings. Ideally
adults should be housed with hay substrate for their outdoor and
indoor enclosures as well. Daily
spot cleaning is required with a complete substrate change every
2-3 weeks. Gravid
females (females with eggs) may require a dig box of dirt and sand
to lay their eggs and adults in general love to dig.
Sulcatas are one of the three true tunnel digging tortoise
species. Rocks, tree
trunks, boulders, and roots create obstacles and mental
The lighting in the cage should replicate the lighting of
the wild. There should
be a high level of illumination and heat.
Adults with large pens will require several UVB bulbs.
All tortoises should be exposed to UVB light or natural
sunlight for at least 8 hours a day and total illumination for
Temperature and Humidity
Relative humidity of 40-60% is ideal during the day and
70-80% at night which can be accomplished by misting the substrate
at night. During the
day the temperatures should be in the 80’s with a basking spot
around 95 degrees. At
night the temperatures should not drop below 72 degrees.
A consistent heating regiment can be maintained using
basking bulbs, ceramic heat emitters, mercury bulbs (when the
enclosures are larger), and under tank heaters.
In the cases of large adults, pig heat blankets may need to
our feeding Sulcatas handout)
Diet is the most important aspect of tortoise care and
sadly, one of the most neglected and misunderstood.
Feeding foods to high in fat and protein will cause
accelerated growth, shell deformities, and other health problems
that will severely shorten the life of your pet.
Never feed bread, cookies, oats, pasta, rice, or cat/dog
food! These are
harmful to your pet’s nutrition and health!
The primary portion (75-80%) of the Sulcata tortoise diet
should be grass and hay high in fiber.
Grasses (not rye grass), weeds, leaves, and flowers are
essential to good health. Fiber
deficiency leads to metabolic bone disease and diarrhea while also
making them susceptible to parasites.
A pasture of grass, dandelion, herbs, and clover outdoors
is the best option for these animals.
If a pasture is restricted due to size, fresh cut works as
grass/hay, timothy grass/hay, and Bermuda grass/hay are excellent
especially during those winter months when the tortoise may be
housed inside. Sulcata
tortoises should be given as much opportunity to graze outdoors as
Vegetables and fruit should be fed out in smaller portions.
Vegetables should make up around 20-25% of the diet.
Too much fruit will cause diarrhea and colic.
Chopped salads are an excellent way to ensure a tortoise
does not pick out their favorite foods only.
Vegetables for human consumption are high in protein and
fruits are high in sugar both of which in excess are harmful to
your tortoise. Moderation
is key in this case. Dark
leafy greens, endive, and cactus pads are favorites as well as
pumpkin! For picky
eaters, red vegetables and sweet foods tempt even the most
Calcium supplements should be given to adult tortoises two
times a week. Actively
reproductive females should be given the calcium every day while
gravid until they lay their eggs.
Calcium supplements should not have phosphorous in it.
Juveniles should be given calcium four times a week and
vitamin-mineral supplements once a week until growing slows.
Hatchlings are given vitamin-mineral supplements once a
week and calcium daily.
Clean, fresh water should always be available to Leopard
tortoises have an ability to store substantial amounts of fluid
and also to discharge the substantial amounts of fluid as a
defense mechanism as well.
Soaking weekly is recommended.
Water should be provided in a shallow water hole, pan or
bowl depending on the enclosure.
References and Sources
Sulcata and Leopard Tortoises (Complete Herp
Care) - E.J. Pirog
Turtles of the World (Volumes 3) -
Leopard and African Spurred Tortoise:
Stigmochelys pardalis and Centrochelys sulcata -
The Care and Breeding of the African Spurred
Tortoise Geochelone sulcata -
African Spurred Tortoise Geochelone
Sulcata In Captivity - Russ
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