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'Tropical tortoise' is a term that gets applied to any tortoise which is not a Mediterranean species (mostly they do come from the tropics) and therefore covers a whole range of species. As you would expect with such a diverse range of tortoise species, comes a whole range of different care requirements.
Tropical tortoises all have one thing in common: they do not hibernate and therefore need to be provided with an artificial summer through the cold winter months.
This has led to many people suggesting that these species are more difficult to care for which is possibly correct but nevertheless, if you have the time then they can make very rewarding pets.
The phrase 'tropical tortoise' is a term which is loosely applied to a wide variety of tortoise species. The main inference which can be drawn from the phrase 'tropical tortoise' is that the species in question is a tortoise which is not one of the Mediterranean species. In general, species hailed as 'tropical' do in fact come from the tropics! It is impossible, however, to band such a wide group of tortoise species together when it comes to tortoise husbandry and care as the tropics contains a wide variety of different habitats and the needs of different species are different. The important thing to do if you are considering buying a tropical species of tortoise is to find out as much as possible about the species, its habitat in the wild, and its needs in captivity.
Tropical tortoises are often described as being more difficult to keep in captivity than Mediterranean species. This is not necessarily the case, but there are some additional dimensions to the care of these tortoises which need to be considered. In general, these species tend to be larger than their Mediterranean cousins, some of them significantly so. This means that they take up a lot more space and may not be suitable for keeping indoors. These tortoises may have different dietary requirements which need to be met year round and as these tortoise species do not hibernate, and need to be kept in an artificial environment throughout the winter months. If you can meet their requirements, however, these tortoises can make very rewarding pets.
Broadly speaking, there are two rough groupings of tropical tortoise which commonly occur in the UK. These are the arid/grassland species such as the leopard tortoise (Geochelone paradis) or the African spurred tortoise (Geochelone sulcata), (not to be confused with the spur thighed tortoise (Testudu graeca) which is a Mediterranean species), and the species which live in more humid rainforest climes such as the red footed tortoise (Geochelone carbonaria). This article will attempt to describe the various tropical tortoise species commonly offered for sale in the UK, and will briefly describe their origin and needs to provide a basic level of understanding about each species. This is however an overview and it is advisable to seek more comprehensive information on a particular species if you intend to keep them. This page does not seek to address the care of box turtles or hingeback turtles or any of the other more unusual species which are tropical in origin, only those species which are commonly available in the UK are described.
Arid/Grassland SpeciesAfrican spurred tortoise (Geochelone sulcata)
This tortoise (commonly called the sulcata) inhabits the southern edge of the Saharah desert in Africa. They are therefore well adapted to hot, dry climates. In the wild they get most of their moisture from their diet, (although they enjoy a drink and a wallow when they get the chance) and they regulate their temperature and humidity needs by retreating into burrows which provide them with their own microclimate. The Sulcata is the third largest species of tortoise in the world, and is the largest of the mainland tortoises. Adults are usually at least 18-24 inches in length, and weigh 70 to 100 pounds. Specimens up to 30 inches long and weighing almost 200 pounds have been reported. They grow very quickly, some reaching 10 inches in length in their first few years.
African spurred tortoises do not hibernate, and they love to dig, and make very long burrows. These tortoises require very high fiber diets and in the wild eat mostly grass and weeds. Feeding many vegetables or fruit to captive sulcatas can cause health problems due to changing their gut flora and pH and too much protein causes over rapid growth and deformities. It is essential that these tortoises are fed a high fibre diet consisting of mostly grass or grass hay supplemented with broadleaved weeds. Young sulcatas grow very and for proper bone and shell development, their diet must include adequate calcium. In the wild, this is provided b Sulcatas need a large enclosure as they get bigger and should be given a generous grazing area. Sulcatas should be kept above 60F, which means that in the UK they will require special winter accommodation. These animals can be challenging to keep due to their large size and their dietary and temperature requirements. They are very powerful and very persistent and so any housing needs to be very strong. That siad they are renowned for having an excellent temperament and make good pets if you have the room and can meet their needs.
Leopard tortoise (Geochelone pardalis)
The Leopard tortoise is one of the tropical species of tortoise which is most commonly kept in the UK. Leopard tortoises are a dry, grassland/savannah species from Africa and they have a large natural range covering much of sub-Saharan Africa, being found all the way from Sudan all the way to South Africa.
They are a medium to large tortoise and on average grow to be 16 to 18 inches long and can weigh approximately 40 pounds. Exceptional specimens have been known to grow to over two feet and weigh up to 80 pounds, but this is more unusual. There is currently much debate over the exact taxonomy of the leopard tortoise with some suggesting that there are no sub-species and others suggesting as many as four splits. The most generally accepted view is that there are two subspecies, Geochelone pardalis babcocki and Geochelone pardalis pardalis which is found only in the Southern parts of the natural range of this tortoise. The leopard tortoise is a colourful animal with contrasting black and yellow colours on the carapace which provide excellent camouflage in the wild.
Its natural home is the savannah, which is naturally hot and dry and therefore this species cannot tolerate damp conditions. They appreciate going outside in the UK but must not be kept on lawns or other such damp places as even the morning dew can make the conditions too wet for this arid species.
These tortoises are exclusively herbivorous and their diet in the wild consists of a wide range of grasses, cactus and broad leaved weeds. In captivity this high fibre, low protein diet should be continued with grasses and hay making up a large portion of the diet, supplemented with weeds such as dandelion and clover etc. Fruit should be offered rarely if at all.
Captive bred specimens of this attractive tortoise are readily available in the UK, and it is an attractive pet if you can provide it with the space and conditions it needs.
Indian star tortoise (Geochelone elegans)
The star tortoise or Indian star tortoise is found in a number of different habitats ranging from semi-desert, to more moist deciduous forests although all of these habitats are dry for a large part of the year. It is a medium to large sized tortoise although not as big as the leopard tortoise. It can attain a maximum size of 12-14 inches with a weight of 6 kilograms although most specimens are smaller than this. Females are always larger than males, who seldom exceed 8 inches in length. In adults this difference in size is quite obvious. Female tortoises tend to have a more rounded appearance than males, and the males always have a much longer tail and a concave plastron.
The shell colour tends to be yellowish brown (of various hues), with wedge-shaped black areas on each scute, which from the star pattern from which this tortoise gets its name. The species comes from large parts of India, Southeast Pakistan and Sri Lanka. There are three suggested sub-species. North Indian, Southern Indian and Sri Lankan. The North Indian sub-species are larger whilst the Southern Indian sub-species are more brightly coloured. The Sri Lankan sub-species is as large as the Northern but as colourful as the Southern, and it is this sub-species of tortoise which is most often encountered in the pet trade.
large as the Northern but as colourful as the Southern, and it is this sub-species of tortoise which is most often encountered in the pet trade.
Star tortoises are predominantly herbivorous eating mainly different grasses, although they will eat carrion and insects when they get the chance. Fresh grass is often only available during the monsoon period. During long periods of drought or in cooler weather, the Star tortoise becomes fairly inactive and feeds only sporadically. They also need some sort of protection from hot sunshine and readily hide amongst rocks or thick vegetation. In captivity, their diet should consist of grass and broadleaved weeds.
Star tortoises have a reputation of being fragile and difficult to keep. They can be extremely sensitive to respiratory problems if kept too cold or too damp and also seem to be sensitive to problems caused by exposure to other species of tortoise. If these problems can be over come then they make very attractive pets.
Humid/Rainforest SpeciesBurmese brown tortoise (Manouria emys)
The Burmese brown tortoise comes from moist, upland forest habitats in the tropical regions of central Asia and are found in Assam, Burma, Thailand, the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra and Borneo. They are a large tortoise (the fourth largest in the world) and may reach weights of up to 100 pounds. There are two subspecies Manouria emys is the smaller and this is the Burmese brown, with Manouria phayerei often called the Burmese black. Both subspecies are also known as the mountain tortoise or the six legged tortoise due to the large scales on the back legs. The burmese tortoise has a deep brown shell which is relatively smooth with no real pattern on it. These tortoises are sometimes considered to be the most ancient group of tortoises still alive today and they have very scaly almost prehistoric looking legs and a slow steady gait.
They prefer a temperature range between 13 to 29 degrees centigrade and need quite high humidity (60 to 100 percent). In the wild these tortoises often live near streams and they usually sit out the hottest part of the day in the shade or in mud wallows so they will need somewhere to hide and enjoy water in their enclosure. They are often crepuscular (active in the morning and evening) in nature, but in the UK will happily wander about and bask in the sunshine on cooler days. They appreciate rain and in captivity will enjoy artificial showers or mists and these will often cause the tortoise to feed.
The diet of these tortoises is mostly herbivorous but can very varied and includes more protein than that of most grazing tortoises as carrion and invertebrates are readily available in their natural forest habitat. They don't eat so much grass but will readily take broadleaf weeds and vegetables. Some fruit and invertebrates such as worms can also be offered.
These tortoises can be shy at first, especially when they are younger, but are they can be very inquisitive and make good pets if you have room for them.
Red footed tortoise (Geochelone carbonaria)
Red-footed tortoises live in tropical forests and grasslands in tropical South America and have been introduced to some islands in the Carribean. It gets its name from the red or orange coloured scales on its limbs, head and tail. Red footed tortoises are a medium sized tortoise and usually reach a maximum length of 16 inches although most only grow to about 10-14 inches. The maximum weight is about 30 pounds. A smaller variety exists (although there is no official species split) which is called the cherry headed tortoise. These tortoises are very brightly coloured and reach a maximum length of 12 inches.
This species of tortoise is tropical and does not hibernate. They prefers a humid climate similar to their forest homes and are a reasonably hardy species as they can tolerate a range of conditions. They enjoy muddy wallows and a bath and in captivity will appreciate a sprinkler or mister to increase the humidity if needed. An area densely planted with vegetation is preferred as a retreat or if not a shelter of some kind will be used. Daytime temperatures need to be 25-35 degrees centigrade and the temperature should not drop below 18 degrees centigrade at night.
In the wild, red footed tortoises are omnivores and eat a wider range of food than many other tortoises. They are also more tolerant of fruit than most tortoises which reflects their forest habitat where fruit and carrion would be more abundant than for more arid species. A variety of broad leafed weeds, supplemented with some fruit and occasional protein (once a week maximum) should be fed supplemented with calcium.