Sulcata Tortoise Care Sheet
The African spurred tortoise (Geochelone sulcata), also called the African spur thigh tortoise or the sulcata tortoise, is a species of tortoise which inhabits the southern edge of the Sahara desert, in northern Africa. It is the third largest species of tortoise in the world and the largest species of mainland tortoise (not found on an island).
Its generic name is a combination of two greek words: geo meaning “earth” or “land” and chelone meaning “tortoise”. Its specific name sulcata is from the Latin word su meaning “furrow” and refers to the furrows on the tortoise’s scales.
The Sulcata is the third largest species of tortoise in the world after the Galapagos tortoise, and Aldabra Giant Tortoise; and the largest of the mainland tortoises. Adults are usually 24 to 36 inch long (60–90 cm) and can weigh 100-200 pounds (45 – 91 kg). Males grow larger than females, but sex can not be determined as babies. They grow from hatchling size (2-3 inches) very quickly, reaching 6-10 inches (15–25 cm) within the first few years of their lives. The lifespan of an African Spurred Tortoise is about 50-150 years, though they can live much longer. (The oldest in captivity is 54 years old, located in the Giza Zoological Gardens, Egypt, 1986).
Due to their reputation for having a pleasant temperament, more and more sulcata tortoises are brought home as pets. These animals do have challenges due to their dietary needs, temperature requirements, and their size as adults.
Sulcata tortoises are herbivores. Primarily, their diet consists of many types of grasses and plants. Their diet is high in fiber and very low in protein. The consumption of too much protein can cause their shells to take on a pyramid appearance. Feeding of fruit should be minimal.
As babies, we focus more on feeding them a wide mix of leafy greens (spring mix), since they have a harder time eating the more tough grass. Vegetables can be added to the diet for variety, but a focus should be on leafy greens and grasses. Please see the food chart for a list of veggies.
Diet should contain around five important factors: high dietary fiber, low protein, low fruit or sugary foods, adequate calcium, and not overfeeding. Grasses should make up at least 75% of a captive sulcata’s diet, to provide the high dietary fiber found in the wild. Young sulcatas grow very fast – they can easily double in size each year during the first three years. For proper bone and shell development, their diet must include adequate calcium. In the wild, this is provided by a high calcium content in the soil, and therefore in their diet, but in captivity calcium supplements are required.
Many “wet” vegetables can cause health problems in large quantities. Red leaf lettuce, prickly pear cactus pads, hibiscus leaves, hay from various grasses and dandelions are some of the better foods to make up the bulk of their diet. They will attempt to eat most types of plants eventually and some common garden plants can be very toxic to them, such as azaleas.
Protein is lacking in their natural diet, and should not be fed in captivity. Lack of calcium combined with high protein does contribute to some shell malformations and causes pyramiding. Fruit should only be given in moderation. They will eat protein such as caterpillars and snails if given the opportunity, but this should be a very small portion of their diet.
The diet available to captive sulcatas can be much more nutritious than in the wild, which offers its own challenges. Sulcatas are voracious to offset the dearth of nutrients in their natural habitat; care must be taken to insure the tortoise does not overfeed.
They can handle variable amounts of humidity in captivity, but naturally are from lower humidity areas. They do not hibernate, but will go through a winter slow down period during cooler weather and shortened days. As adults, they can safely handle body temperatures as low as 60 degrees at night as long as they are able to heat up into the 80’s during the day. Summer highs up to 120 degrees can be tolerated as long as there is a cooler, shaded retreat the tortoise can get into. Dampness is not a problem in high temperatures (a cool mud hole on a hot day), but in cooler weather the tortoises should be kept dry.
Sulcatas should be kept above 60F (16°C), which means many areas will require special winter accommodations. Sulcatas need a large enclosure as they get bigger and should be given a generous grazing area because they are natural grazers.
Interestingly sulcatas can not be exported from their native for traded for primarily commercial purposes. Only captive bred a animals are available per CITES.