Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sulcata Tortoise

African Spurred Tortoise (Geochelone Sulcata)

a.k.a. Sulcata Tortoise, African Spur-Thigh Tortoise


Sulcata Tortoises are the third largest tortoise in the world, behind the Galapagos Tortoise and the Aldabran Tortoise. However, they are the largest mainland tortoise in the world, meaning they are the largest species of tortoise not found on an island. At birth, these tortoises are only 2-3 in. in length, but grow extremely quickly in their first few years. Some sources say that an adult tortoise can grow up to 18 in. (45 cm) in shell length, and 70 to 100 lbs. (30 to 45 kg) in weight. These are actually very conservative numbers. Sulcatas will typically be much larger than this, possibly up to 36 in. and 230 lbs. The largest on record was a male resident of the Giza Zoological Gardens (Egypt) who weighed in at 232 lb (105.5 kg) and measured 41.6 inches (104 cm) over the carapace (Flower, 1925, in Stearns).

Baby vs. Adult Sulcata

Their natural habitat is found in Africa along the Sahara Desert and the Sahel, a transitional ecoregion of semi-arid grasslands, savannas, and thorn shrublands in countries such as Chad, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. In these regions, they are very avid burrowers. Their burrows rarely reach more than 36” in depth, but can extend for several yards under the surface. This is an important consideration, and one of the greatest obstacles, for potential owners. Adult sulcatas have been known to dig under fences and damage the foundations of houses. Sulcatas graze and forage for hours during the day. In the wild, much of their intake is from extremely hard to digest, tough plant fibers from grasses. Sulcatas are not nocturnal, but younger tortoises may seem like it, sleeping up to 12-16 hours a day.

Sulcatas are a relatively high-maintenance tortoise, especially as they grow older, but with planning and preparation, they can be a very rewarding companion. They are a sturdy and adaptable species, very forgiving of novice mistakes, making them a popular pet, but some guidelines need to be followed to keep them happy and healthy.


No terrestrial tortoise should be kept in an aquarium- or vivarium-style glass tank, regardless of how big the tank is. They just don't make them large enough, even for hatchlings or juveniles, and adults will absolutely need to be kept outside. For housing, a general rule is the length of the enclosure must be ten times as long as the tortoise, five times as wide and three times as high. Others say one inch of tortoise shell length per 10 sq. feet. YouTube and Google both have many examples of indoor enclosures for you to get ideas from.

Indoor enclosures (Tortoise tables) for younger (under five years or fifteen lbs., according to some) Sulcatas should be a minimum of 20 sq. ft, depending on the size of the tortoise. You will most likely need to construct your own, but it doesn't require a very sophisticated design, so it should not be too expensive. I used a hollowed out and modified arcade game cabinet as an indoor enclosure.

An adult will need to be kept outside. One option is to build a large outdoor enclosure (min. 30 ft.x30 ft.), but as this would be a major landscaping project, many people let the tortoise roam free through the yard and provide a large, modified doghouse or shed to provide heat and shelter at night and during the winter. Again, Google and YouTube can let you see many different designs.

One important thing to keep in mind for outdoor enclosures is the Sulcata's extreme strength and curiosity. If they can see through a fence, they will want to explore what's on the other side. They can push down or dig under fences which are not sturdy enough.

Also, racoons, opossums, cats, and dogs can harass and injury an outdoor sulcata, and unscrupulous humans have been known to carry them out. So the fence around your yard not only needs to be strong enough to keep the tortoise in, but design to keep predators out.

Temperatures in an indoor enclosure should be kept around 70-75ºF with a basking area that reaches up to about 100ºF. Outdoor enclosures obviously rely more on ambient temperature. It is absolutely essential to provide heated shelter outside so the tortoise can stay warm during the winter and on cold nights.

Although African Sulcata Tortoises live in the desert, their actual environment may be more humid since they spend much of their time in caves or burrows. Research has shown that tortoises raised in dry conditions are more likely to develop a shell abnormality called "pyramiding," which is an abnormal hump-shape of the scutes. Tortoises raised in environments with 45-99% humidity had less abnormal shell growth than those raised in drier conditions.

As usual with reptile substrates, stay away from pine or cedar because the oils they contain are toxic. Also, sand, Calci-Sand, and crushed oyster shells have been known to cause eye irritation, impaction in the tortoises digestive system, and abrasions in the tortoises shell. Corncob and crushed walnut shell have also been known to cause digestive blockages. Alfalfa pellets should not be used because the soak up moisture and get moldy. Sand, however, is a great substrate if mixed with another material. It just shouldn't be used by itself.

In Europe hemp is a popular substrate. Those that use it highly recommend it, but its unavailable in the US. Some people are using aspen instead and it seems to work well. The main concern is they are too dry. As mentioned above, sand works well if mixed with another material. If mixed with loam or coconut coir (Bed-A-Beast), it is by far one of the best substrates. The amount of moisture can be easily regulated. Also, it is easy to create a higher moisture/humidity (substrate moisture is more important than humidity) area as well as a dry area in the same pen. This way the tortoise has a choice of micro-climates. Loam is the best choice and is readily available in northern states and the UK. However here in the south its scarce. So I use coconut coir instead. This has work well over the past 15 years for a number of species I keep. Hatchlings also do well on it.

A Sulcata Tortoise will need two types of lighting. One for heat and one for UV. Depending on the size of your tank and the temp in the room, anywhere from a 15 watt to a 75 watt bulb can be used. Place a thermometer under the bulb on the ground where your tortoise will bask and make sure the temperature reaches 95-105 degrees. The other (cool) end of tank should be at least 10-20 degrees cooler than the basking side so the tortoise can regulate its body temperature. This light should be turned off for the night unless your house gets cooler than 72 degrees at night, in which case a black or blue light should be used to bring the temperature up to 75-80 degrees.

Sulcata Tortoises require a florescent UVA/UVB light. This light replicates the sun's rays, which is important because Sulcatass cannot synthesize Vitamin D3 in their own body without the UVB from the Sun. If they cannot make Vitamin D3, their bodies won't be able to process calcium properly and that can lead to a host of health problems. The light needs to be placed within 8-12 inches of the basking spot in order to be effective. The light should be replaced every 6-12 months and should be also turned off for at night.

Sulcata tortoises typically should not be housed with others of it's kind unless you truly have huge tracts of land. These tortoises are extremely voracious and will compete with each other for food. Even females have been known to try to flip each other over. However, if sufficient food can be provided for each tortoise, it should be alright to keep them together.


Sulcatas are strictly vegetarian. About 70-90% of their diet should be various kinds of grasses. Everyone says to give Timothy or Alfalfa Hay, but whenever I have tried to feed my Sulcata Timothy Hay, he expresses his displeasure by stomping and crapping all over it. Try using Timothy Hay. If it works, more power to you, but if it doesn't, grasses and dandelion greens are a decent substitute.

The other 10-30% of the diet should be dark, leafy greens like kale, collard greens, bok choy, mustard greens, etc. Various kinds of lettuce are good, but never offer Iceberg Lettuce. Some people say cabbage is acceptable, others say it is not. I say it's best to err on the side of caution, so I do not use it. Carrots are good on occasion, as well as pumpkin.

Fruits should never be offered to a Sulcata. They are way too high in sugar for their system to handle and, over time, can cause renal failure. In addition to fruits, there are several plants of which only part are edible. On roses, only the flower is edible, for example, and only the leaves of grapes are edible.

Calcium is very important for Sulcata tortoises. To ensure that their bones and shells grow properly, a Calcium to Phosphorus ratio of 2:1 should be maintained. There are many powders and sprays that add calcium to a Sulcatas diet. A light dusting (or spray) and each feeding is usually sufficient, unless the product specifically instructs otherwise.

It's actually unnecessary to give a Sulcata tortoise a water dish or any kind of water. They should get all the moisture they need from the grasses and veggies they eat. However, they do need to be soaked in luke-warm water for about 10-20 min.. Any container will do, filled high enough that the tortoise can still easily stick his head out above the surface.

This soaking is very important for keeping them hydrated. Hatchlings need to be soaked EVERY DAY. Juveniles need to be soaked a few times a week. Adults can be soaked once every 1-2 weeks. Your tortoise should not actually drink the water it is soaked in. If it drinks, it means it is dehydrated and you need to soak more often, increase humidity in the enclosure, and/or reassess its diet. It should just sit and soak in the water. Defecation is also normal during soaking.

A Sulcata's diet is extremely important for proper growth and development. Improper diet and dehydration (among other things) are both causes of pyramiding. Pyramiding is an indication that something has gone wrong with the tortoise's nutrition, and is therefore a sign of more serious health issues such as kidney or liver stress, systemic infection, or respiratory/cardiac problems which will severely shorten the sulcata's lifespan.

This is what pyramiding looks like. Your
Sulcata shouldn't look this bad right off
the bat, but this is the sort of thing to
watch out for. You should see a vet well
before this point.

Due in part to an improper diet, this poor guy's deformations
have grown so severe that he will need to be hand-fed for the rest
of his life because his plastron (bottom shell) prevents him
from being able to graze normally.



1. Give your Sulcata a LOT of space.
2. Provide UVB lighting.
3. Use a sand/Bed-A-Beast substrate.
4. Feed mostly grasses, mixed with some dark, leafy greens.
5. Supplement calcium.
6. Soak tortoise regularly in water. Frequency depends on age.


1. Keep Sulcatas in glass, aquarium-style tanks.
2. Keep multiple Sulcatas together.
3. Feed fruits, Iceberg Lettuce, or pretty much anything that's not grass or a dark, leafy green.
4. Use gritty, sand-like substrates, or absorbant substrates like alfalfa pellets.

1 comment:

  1. Hello, fellow sulcata tortoise enthusiast! One day I'm going to be as big as that adult sulcata in the 1st photo :) I'm glad to join your site :) Please "follow" my blog, too :)