Sulcata Tortoise

Natural History

African Spur-thighed tortoises, or simply sulcatas, are one of the largest tortoise species in the world. They hail from the hot, dry deserts of central Africa, and are well adapted for such a harsh environment. These animals get most of their water from the food they eat, and may go literally months without drinking standing water.

Despite their size, sulcatas are a very popular tortoise species. They are extremely hardy and adaptable and have outgoing and friendly personalities. Although by no means ornate, they are an attractive species, and make wonderful pets for the committed keeper.

Recommended Reading

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Size and Longevity

Sulctas are the third largest tortoise species in the world, and the largest mainland species. Adult males can weigh nearly 200 pounds and be close to 3 feet in length. Females tend to be smaller, but may still tip the scales at close to 100 pounds.

Owning a sulcata tortoise is a big commitment. Not only do they get very big, but they also live a very long time. In most cases, they will outlive their owners. All estimates indicate that a sulcata tortoise can live for close to 100 years!

Housing

Baby and juvenile sulcatas are best kept indoors under controlled heat and lighting. One or two hatchlings can live in a 10 to 20 gallon terrarium until they reach about 3 inches. They should then be moved to larger quarters as needed until they are basketball sized. At this size they can be housed outdoors in most climates as long as a heated shelter is provided for night and for cooler days.

As such large tortoise, sulcatas to pose a unique problem when it comes to housing adults. There really is no right or wrong way to do it. Each keeper will have different resources and limitations with which to work. Key concerns are security, size, and availability of shelter.

Heating and Lighting

Young tortoises housed indoors will require both a source of heat as well as full spectrum lighting. Within the enclosure you should establish a thermal gradient, that is, one end of the tank should be warmer and the other side cooler. This gives the tortoise a range of temperatures from which to choose at any given time. For babies and juveniles, daytime basking temperatures should be around 90 degrees, while larger animals can have basking spots near 100 degrees. In both cases, the side of the cage farthest from the heat source should not exceed 80.

Full spectrum UV lighting is a must for maintaining sulcata tortoises. In the wild, they are exposed to unfiltered sunlight, and this light is what allows for the body to synthesize vitamin D3 which is in turned needed for calcium absorption in the gut. In captivity we have bulbs designed specifically for this purpose. Most are in the form of fluorescent tubes, but new mercury vapor bulbs that provide both heat and light (such as Zoo Med’s Powersun) are a great choice for larger animals housed in larger enclosures.

Substrate and Furnishings

There are likely as many opinions on the perfect substrate as there are tortoise keepers. Nonetheless, some are certainly more appropriate than others. When housing young sulcatas indoors, you want to provide a substrate that is easy to clean, dust-free, and relatively safe if ingested. No substrate is necessarily good for an animal to eat, but some are much safer and more likely to be passed trouble free than others.

Chipped aspen (Sani-Chips), as well as orchid bark, newspaper, and even soil are all acceptable choices. Avoid anything synthetic (like carpet) that may pose real harm if nibbled on. Alfalfa based rabbit pellets have been used with some success, but they tend to mold quickly, so special attention should be paid to keeping this type of bedding fresh.

Tortoises do best when provided with an uncluttered environment, leaving them as much usable floor space as possible. A half-log for hiding is acceptable, but avoid objects that may settle on a burrowing tortoise as well as items that may cause them to repeatedly flip onto their backs.

Water and Humidity

These tortoise come from a very hot and dry climate, and are well adapted to life with little water. In captivity they will get most of their water from the food they eat. A shallow water dish should be provided, although do not expect all sulcatas to drink regularly from a dish of standing water. Instead, soak baby tortoises twice a week in chin-deep, luke warm water for 10-15 minutes. Doing so almost always encourages them to drink, and this will help insure adequate hydration.

As the animals get larger, and they are consuming a greater amount of food, soaking becomes less important, however some water source should be provided on a regular basis.

Ambient humidity does not pose a problem when keeping sulcatas. However, recent research has shown that growing tortoises given access to a humid shelter (like a burrow in nature) are less likely to show signs of pyramiding, a common shell deformity seen in fast-growing tortoise species. This can be as simple as a clump of moist moss stuffed into the animals favorite shelter, and misted every few days to keep it barely wet.

Nutrition

Sulcatas are strict vegetarians. In the wild, they feed on dry, fibrous grasses and hays, as well as occasional fruits and blossoms. Their diet in captivity should be similar. Dark, leafy greens such as collards, mustard, romaine, and red leaf lettuce are all good choices. Carrot tops and beet greens can be offered, as should a variety of grasses and hays. These foods should make up the majority of the diet for growing tortoises. A dry pelleted food can also make up a portion of the diet, and diets such as the Grassland Tortoise Diet or the Rep Cal Tortoise Diet are excellent options to help round out your tortoise's diet.

Adults are most economically maintained on a diet of timothy hay, alfalfa, and other feed store grasses. Fruits can be offered as treats in moderation. These animals are not used to a sugary diet, but the occasional banana, fig, or apple will not hurt. The key to tortoise nutrition is variety, and remember that in moderation, no single food will be detrimental to the animals health.

All foods should be lightly dusted with a high quality calcium/vitamin D3 supplement at every feeding, and less often for older animals and for those housed outdoors. Even in conjunction with a varied diet, multivitamins are recommended, and should be added to the food a few times a month, or as dictated by the manufacturers directions.

Handling

Generally, tortoises are not animals that like being picked up, but that is not to say that they don’t appreciate human contact. Petting and hand feeding of tortoises is a great way to build a pet-owner bond without the stress of actually picking up the animal. Obviously sulcaats get very large, and you couldn’t carry around an adult if your wanted to! Nonetheless, as long as all four feet are on the ground, these tortoises are friendly, outgoing, and happy to see you!

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