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Choosing an African Spurred Tortoise (Sulcata)

By: R.D. & Patti Bartlett

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Best known as the African spurred tortoise, the sulcata is one of the largest mainland island tortoises. Despite the threatened status of many island tortoises, the sulcata is a popular species and is now routinely bred in captivity.

Hatchling African spurred tortoises are available in small numbers throughout the year. When properly cared for, this tortoise grows very rapidly. From a 2-inch long hatchling, one may attain a length of 10 or more inches and a weight of 35 or more pounds within two years, and eventually reach 200 pounds. A well-cared-for tortoise can live 30 to 50 years.

Appearance

This large, sand or dirt colored tortoise has a low-domed carapace that is somewhat flattened in the center. When viewed from above it is roughly oval in appearance.

Hatchlings are tan to light brown in coloration, often with darker growth rings on the carapace. There are enlarged scales on the anterior of the front legs. The plastron is light in color. The growth annuli are well developed, imparting a sculptured look.

The limbs are strong and well clawed. The rear feet have a shape similar to that of the elephant.

Behavior

African spurred tortoises are large tortoises with a heavy, well-formed shell. They become very tame and trusting but do not like to be lifted. Indeed, because of the great weight of the adults, it is difficult to lift them, even if you have to. Like most tortoises, they are essentially terrestrial, but on hot days may enter shallow water to soak and cool down. They bask extensively, usually in the morning or late afternoon, as temperatures are warming or cooling. They actively forage throughout much of the day. Some spend the heat of the day hunkered down in a shallow, self-dug, pallet beneath a bush; others may dig very deep and well-formed burrows. This is natural behavior, but owners who enjoy a finely manicured lawn may find the excavations troubling.

Spurred tortoises are gentle. They seldom bite and, when acclimated, will readily accept food from their owner's fingers (use care or you can be bitten while hand-feeding the tortoise).

Until fully acclimated, a frightened tortoise may withdraw into its shell, fold its heavily scaled forelimbs across the anterior shell opening, and remain immobile for many minutes. When it begins to relax, it does so slowly, ready to withdraw again if startled.

Feeding

Captive African spurred tortoises should be fed a diet of mixed, healthy greens (collards, mustard, beet, and dandelion greens, romaine, lettuce, escarole, bok choy), some fruits, some commercial tortoise foods and, occasionally, a little low-fat kibble dog food. Because spinach contains oxalic acid, a calcium binder, it should not be fed to the tortoise. A sizable shallow container of fresh drinking water should always be present

In captivity, where exercise is limited, tortoises can become unnaturally fat. Regulate the amount of food given. Obesity is no healthier for a tortoise than it is for a human.

Fast growing babies and ovulating female tortoises should be given a D3-calcium supplement twice weekly. For adult males, provide vitamin-mineral supplements at least once every 2 weeks.

Handling

African spurred tortoises can be handled, but they do not enjoy being lifted from the ground. Do so only when absolutely necessary.

Until fully acclimated these tortoises may be shy, withdrawing into their shell when lifted. This is especially true of adults. Allow these reptiles to make the overtures. As they become used to their pen and to the movements around them, they will become ever more trusting, eventually coming to the side of their cage to greet you and accept food.

Housing

One or two hatchling African spurred tortoises may be kept in a 15-gallon terrarium with dry mulch or rolled corrugate substrate. As they grow, the size of the terrarium will need to increase. One or two adult African spurred tortoises will need a cage with a bottom space of 8 feet by 8 feet (the size of two sheets of plywood) or a dedicated room. They will require a retaining wall of about 2 feet around the perimeter of the cage, but will not need a top.

During the daylight hours, illuminate and warm one end of the cage. An ambient cage temperature of 80 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit is fine, but a hot spot warmed to 95 to 100 F by a full-spectrum UV-B-heat bulb will be appreciated and used extensively. Nighttime temperatures can drop by a few degrees and the heat bulb can be turned off.

Provide a shallow but sizable water receptacle for your tortoise to drink from and soak in. Since many tortoises regularly defecate in their water receptacles, be prepared to change this as necessary.

Beside cages and dedicated rooms, garden pens and greenhouses can also be adapted as a tortoise home.

Medical Concerns

Provided they are fed properly and kept warm, the sulcata is an almost trouble-free tortoise species.

If chilled, and especially if wet and chilled, African spurred tortoises may develop pneumonia.

Dystocia (egg-binding) can be caused by poorly formed eggs, but it most often results when the females voluntarily retaining the eggs due to incorrect nesting conditions.

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