Sulcata Tortoises

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Information and care for sulcata tortoises:

By Christina Obrecht, Oct. 4, 2010

Please read up before buying a sulcata tortoise! If housed and fed properly, sulcata tortoises can be a very rewarding "pet". Let's start with general information.

General Information:

Sulcata tortoises (Geochelone sulcata) are often referred to as the African Spur-thigh tortoise. This is a common mistake. There is actually no species as the African spur-thigh tortoise.  There is the Spur-thigh tortoise which is made up of five species of tortoise that are native to the Mediteranean. Though the pysical characteristics may resemble the sulcata, they are actualy a different species and require a different diet, care, and maintenance. The Spur-thigh tortoise originates in areas around the Mediterranean Sea. Some of the "Mediterranean Spur-thigh tortoises" include; the greek tortoise, the Hermann's tortoise, Iberian tortoise, and the Kleinmann's tortoise.

Sulcatas are the third largest tortoise in the world; with the Galapagos and aldabra tortoises being the largest. An adult sulcata can reach a shell lenght of 18 or more inches, and weigh anywhere from 80-110 pounds with a lifespan of 80-100 years. They can reach adult size in 5-10 years in captivity; versus 20-50 years in the wild. The reasoning for slow growth in the wild is due to the sparse and sporatic food the desert has to offer the tortoise.

Sulcatas are native to the semi-arid sahel region in Africa; southern edge of the Sahara down through the arid countries including Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, the Sudan, and Ethiopia up through the dry, hot Massaua coast bordering the Red Sea. These tortoises have evolved to deal with a warm, dry environment with plenty of natural sunlight. In the wild they stay out of the mid-day sun and heat, only coming above ground to eat and drink early morning or early evening.

Caring for your sulcata:


While the sulcata is a desert dwelling tortoise, their temperature should not exceed 90 degrees! Ideal temperature should be between 80-90 degrees. Temperatures between 95-110 degrees can lead to dehydration, loss of appetite, possible bladder stones, or other issues; esp in hatchlings. They will seek shelter from the heat in their underground burrows where they will stay until the temperature drops.

NEVER use a heat rock as a heat source; especially for a tortoise. Your tortoise, esp. a hatchling, has a very sensitive shell and skin, and any contact with the heat rock can cause severe skin and/or shell burns - which could be fatal. They do best with heat from above, such as heat lights, as it replicates the natural heat from the sun. Nighttime temps should NOT drop below 60 degrees. Sulcatas do Not hibernate in the winter; as in the wild, their winter season is a dry season, not a cold one. Make sure your tortoise has access to cooler areas /shade so they can cool down when necessary.


Aquariums of any size are not suitable enclosures for sulcatas! A "tortoise table" is a much better way to provide an indoor enclosure for juveniles as there is more room and better air circulation. If you can not provide a space big enough for an adult, you need to build a tortoise shed outside. This may be a challenge for those living in the northern areas. Of course the shed must be heated and provide a "hide box" as well. These tortoises feel more "secure" and comfortable when there is a space for them to hide with at least three sides. Make sure there is nothing in their enclosure that they can climb onto and tip over. If they end up on their back for an extended period of time, it can be fatal.

Good substrate to use would be dirt/sand mixture to allow for burrowing. Stay away from STARIGHT sand, oyster shells, and especially pine/cedar shavings. The oils in these woods are toxic to the tortoises.


When housing your tortoise indoors, you must use proper UVB lighting. Because they are from a very sunny, semi-arid environment, they require a great deal of light to stay healthy and active. With out a high amount of light levels, the tortoise can become lethargic. You can not provide UVB by placing your tortoises enclosure next to a window. Sunlight filtered through most windows will filter out all beneficial rays. Natural sunlight is the best source of UVB radiation, so the best and safest way to provide Vitamin D3 to the tortoise is to allow it to go outside and be exposed to sunlight for at least 20 minutes a day. If this is not possible, then you must provide the tortoise with an aftificial UVB light. UVB bulbs should be placed 18-20 inches above the top of the shell. The UVB light helps the tortoise to produce the proper levels of Vitamin D3 in their bodies. Vitamin D3 is essential for the effective metabolism of calcium they eat. Tortoises that lack sufficient levels of Vitamin D3 can not build healthy bones and shells, no matter how much calcium they eat.


Because sulcatas can easily become dehydrated, they should have a water bowl accessable at all times. The bowl should be large enough for them to climb into, yet shallow enough that they can easily get out and will not drown. The smaller the tortoise, the easier it can become dehydrated. They can even become dehydrated overnight. In addition to a shallow water bowl for the juveniles, you can provide humidity by piling up a deep, moisture-holding substrate, such as shpagnum moss in a corner of their enclosure where it can dig in and sleep in. Another way to add humidity would be to provide a hide box with a dampened sponge attached inside.

Hathclings or juveniles should be soaked 2-3 times a week, and an adult, once a week. The water should be warm, not hot. The water level should be no deeper than the base of the neck. Time for soaking can range from 5-20 minutes; do not let the water cool down too much. Keep in mind, they may deficate in the water, if they do, just drain the water and refil. After their soak, be sure to dry them off with paper towels before putting them back into their enclosures. The sulcata's skin is resistent to fluid loss due to their native region, however, when exposed to moisture, the skin becomes highly permeable.


Do not let this section discourage you! Sulcatas require a very complex diet.

Do not maintain your tortoise with these foods:

-Steady diet of fruit and veggies

-Cat or dog food of any kind

-Canned or dry commercial tortoise food; no matter of the brand

The most common dietary problems include:

1. Not provding enough fiber

2. providing too much protein

3. giving fruit and sugary foods

4. not providing enough calcium and/or the right calcium-phosphorus balance

5. generaly overfeeding

In their native environment, the only food available is dry grasses and weeds. They require high-fiber, grass-based diet to stay healthy. If fed the wrong foods, they will grow too quickly, develop a bumpy, pyramided shell, and may develop other health issues that could drastically shorten its lifespan.

Provide enough fiber by feeding a diet that is based mostly on fresh and dried grasses with some edible weeds, leaves, and flowers (I will mention these further down). Avoid giving foods that contain high levels of protein. Never give your tortoise cheese or diary products, cat or dog food, legumes (peas, beans, greenbeans, soybeans, or soy based products), commercially-available "tortoise diets", or grains and grain products.

High protein diets stress the tortoises kidneys and liver. High dietary protein has been shown to cause pyramided shells as well. Also avoid feeding a steady diet of fresh or frozen/thawed veggies (high in protein), even dark, leafy greens are too high in protein to thrive on (small amount, once in a while as a treat is fine).

Avoid fruit! Grazing tortoises, such as sulcatas, rely on beneficial bacteria in their intestines to help them digest and extract nourishment from the grasses that they eat. If given large amounts of fruit, the acids and sugars in the fruit can change the pH of the tortoises digestive tract, and the pH change can cause the beneficial bacteria in the tortoises gut to die off. When large amount of gut bacteria die, they can release toxins that cross the gut wall and enter the tortoises bloodstream, causing them to experience a form of sepsis (toxic shock syndrome) that can be fatal.

Provide enough calcium and the right calcium-phosphorus balance. Also avoid broccoli, mustard greens, and other members of the brassicae family.

Avoid overfeeding! Sulcatas can experience a variety of health issues when they are fed the wrong foods, but they can also have problems when fed too much of the right foods. Remember - reptiles have a slower metabolism than mammals, so they really don't need to take in as much food. Consider their activity leverl as well; if the tortoise does not do much exercise/walking, he doesn't need to be fed every day, every other day is fine. Over fed tortoises that do not get enough exercise, may develop pyramided shells, may be more susceptible to upper respiratory infections, and may develop damage to their kidneys and livers.

Recommended diet:

*remember, try to immitate their natural environment.

-Buffalo grass -Western wheatgrass

-Bermuda grass -Blue grama

-Orchard grass -Arizona fescue, sheep fescue, lawn fescue

-Big bluestream/little bluestream -Creeping red fescue

Grass hay (not alfalfa hay) is also a good staedy diet.

Edible weeds, leaves, and flowers include: (which should make up the remaining 25% of their diet, if possible).

-Dandelion -Sowthistle

-Prickly pear cactus pads (scrape off needles) -Chickweed

-Broadleaf plaintain/buckhorn plaintain -Hibiscus

-Globe mallow -Geranium

-Henbit -Mulberry

-Hollyhock -Grape (leaves only)

-Roses (flowers only)

*Remember to make sure these plants have not been treated with any chemicals, such as fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides.


Whole and/or canned pumpkin is a good seasonal food. Pumpkin is beneficial because it contains mannitol - a natural deworming compund. You do not need to peel off the rind or cook the pumpkin, however, you should remove the seeds. You can also freeze what you don't use.

Other foods that should be given in small amounts, if at all, include: romain, arugula, collard grens, mustard greens, turnip greens,  and chicory. These darker, leafy greens contain oxalic acid, which can affect calcium absorbtion, so these should ONLY be given as a treat, if at all.


Supplements are usually not needed if your husbandry/diet is correct; however if you feel the need to use any, be careful on dosaging and what kind of supplements you use. Too much or the wrong kind can cause more health issues!  As mentioned above, sulcatas require a large amount of calcium in their diet to help them grow healthy bones and shell. When choosing a calcium supplement, don't choose one that HAS phosphorus in it! The are both essential to build healthy bone tissue; however, the phosphorus available in most foods is used much more readily by their body than the calcium, so there really is no need for additional phosphorus. The easiest way to get calcium into your tortoise is to leave a cuttlebone in their enclosure. The tortoise will chew on the cuttlebone when it feels it needs more calcium.

If powdered calcium is preferred, a human calcium supplement is recommened (one that has calcium-citrate and/or calcium maleate) in capsule form. Twice a week, open a capsule and mix the powder inside with a spoonfull of canned pumpkin puree. (They love pumpkin puree) You could also sprinkle the powder over dandelion greens or any other edible weed. The powder will stick best to "wet" greens, be sure to wash the greens, then shake off the excess water. I prefer to add my supplement powder to the dampened greens.

Causes of pyramiding:

-Too much food

-Inaccessable calcium

-Too much protein

-Low-fiber foods

-Lack of exercise


1. Too much food:

This type of pyramididng seems to be exhibited by conical scutes (horny outer layer). Their bodies have an easier time removing the protein from their food than calcium. The calcium passes through and the protein is converted to keratin (same substance as human fingernails) resulting in the "stacked" look. Regardless of how low in protein the diet is, too much food results in this to varying amounts.

2. Inaccessable calcium:

This will lead to a flattened appearance to the shell with collapsed vertebral scutes. The tortoise seems to put the available calcium in their plastrons (or carapace/belly), this is an example of poor food or a steady diet of high-oxalate foods. Another "co-factor" for this issue is the lack of UV exposure for Vitamin D conversion.

3. Too much protein:

Too much protein also gives the tortoise the "stacked" look. High protein diets also physically stress the tortoise and are believed to damage the kidneys.

4. Low-fiber diet:

The low-fiber diet seems to give the same result as too much food because they are digestible as well.

5. Physical activity level:

Proper protein/calcium metabolism is necessary for a sound skeletal frame. High levels of physical activity leads to more calcium being deposited in the bone.

Yes, sulcatas require a lot of time, space, and knowledge. So if you would like to get one of these wonderful tortoises, please keep this information at hand. Read up!