Sulcata Tortoises

Care of Sulcata Tortoises (African Spurred Tortoise)

(Geochelone Sulcata)

Home Range: Northern parts of Africa, ranging from the 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.

Sex Determination: Little morphological difference between males and females. Males may be larger than females at breeding age. Bred females may show a polished carapaces from the contact with the male’s plastron.  Also female’s may have a slightly flatter carapaces and slightly concave plastrons vs. males. There is no significant difference in tail size or shape between the sexes.

Males and females both can be quite aggressive with each other.  Male’s may ram and attempting to flip each other over after they reach sexual maturity (@ about 14 inches carapace length).  Bloodied and often severely injured heads and limbs may result from repeated ramming.  Unless their outdoor area is extremely large, housing multiple males together should be avoided.

Heating and Housing: Overhead heating with a basking lamp (ceramic bulb that produces only heat) is more natural for the tortoise, as in the wild they would get their heat from the sun, above.  In rare instances heat from below can cause digestive upset and related problems.  Make sure your basking source is not of a too high a wattage for the enclosure size and type.

Size- as large as you can make it, but minimally, about 2 feet long X 1 foot wide for a hatchling.  Air flow from two sides (this means that glass terrarium enclosures are not ideal).  Larger specimens need to be housed outdoors (if weather permits).

Lighting: Natural sunlight (not through a glass window or plastic, etc.).  When indoors- we recommend using a MegaRay mercury vapor UVB bulb.  Replace bulbs every 6 months (unless tested and still effective).  Usually after six months your bulb will still shed light but the UVB rays may be gone.  Use an automatic timer to turn the lamp on and off per recommended light cycles (10-12 hours of light a day).

Temperature: Use a digital thermometer with a probe (Radio Shack).  Measure the temperature in various areas in the enclosure, at the level that the tortoise occupies.  Do not use the stick-on reptile thermometers (not accurate).  In a small enclosure it is difficult to make a hot zone and a cool zone (which is another reason that an enclosure that is too small is inappropriate.  Preferred temperature range is up to 105F degrees in the hot zone and 80-85F in the cool zone.   

Behavior: Sulcatas need to burrow away from the heat and do so by retreating to their pallets or into muddy wallows where they will stay for hours, flipping cool mud up onto their backs. Typically when environmental temperatures exceed 104 F, they will begin to salivate and smearing the saliva on their forearms to help cool themselves down (by evaporation).

Soaking/Humidity: Juveniles- soak at least 3 times/week.  Hatchlings, newly acquired tortoises, and yearlings – every day or every-other-day.  Considered a juvenile (from a hatchling) at about 1 year of age.  An adult should be still soaked 1 time/week.  The water should be lukewarm and no deeper than the bottom shell (plastron).  Use a plastic kitty-litter pan as a “bath tub” (the tortoise can see out over the rim).  Soak for 5-10 minutes.  Large tortoises should be provided a shallow outdoor pool for soaking and wading.

Substrate: It is important for your tortoise to be able to burrow.  If housed outdoors this is easy.  For juveniles (housed indoors) CareFreshÒ and Yesterday’s News both are absorbent, unlikely to be consumed, and hygienic choices to allow digging.  Many other inappropriate bedding options are available, but should be avoided for health reasons.  You should put about two to four layers of newspaper on the bottom of the enclosure under any substrate.  It is also important to provide a hide box placed in the “cool zone” of the enclosure. A cardboard or plastic box works well.  Sulcata’s are active during the day and need room to exercise.

Feeding Schedule: It is crucial NOT to overfeed your tortoise greens, cactus, flowers, and pellets. @ 0-12 months: one feeding per day is plenty @ ¼ cup.  @  >12 months: no more than ½ to 1 cup.  As full-grown adults the ration is increased.  At all stages of life, unlimited grass and grass hay should also be allowed.  Slow, Steady, growth is the key to a healthy tortoise.

Diet: Mostly (75%) a variety of grasses, weeds, and clovers.  NEVER offer iceberg lettuce.  Sulcatas have a high fiber requirement.  They graze in the wild, and are voracious eaters who consume grasses, weeds, and other hard-to-digest plant matter.  Do not offer fruits. In place of fruits (as a treat) offer Opuntia cactus and berries (seasonal).  Opuntia cactus is also known as “Prickly Pear Cactus” or “Nopales”.  There are about 200 varieties of Opuntia, but they are all edible.  The remaining (25%) diet can be a mixtures of dark leafy greens such as turnip greens, mustard greens, collard greens, chicory, watercress, mulberry leaves, grape leaves, dandelion greens and blossoms (untreated with pesticides), edible flowers (nasturtium, geraniums, hibiscus leaves and blossoms, rose petals and shrubs).  If you feed kale and collard greens, only do so once in a while in small amounts.  Avoid chard, spinach, broccoli, cabbages, cauliflower, green beans or beans of any kind, corn, sprouts, tomatoes, or any legume or other high-protein vegetable.  Avoid feeding too much goitrogenic vegetables, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage and bok choy. In excess, these can impair thyroid function and cause goiter.  Greens high in calcium oxalates (parsley, spinach, rhubarb, beet greens, collards, carrots, etc.) should be avoided in excess as the oxalic acid binds calcium and can lead to metabolic bone disease.  Sulcatas respond to bright colors, so always include at least one vividly colored food in your selection. This also means that you must keep brightly colored foregn objects away from them!

Supplementation: A tortoise on an ideal diet (grass/hay and dark leafy greens) probably does not need any vitamin/mineral supplementation.  However, juveniles in particular often are aquired in a nutritionally depleted state.  Any tortoise that is young and housed indoors should probably be offered a calcium-only supplement  (phosphorous-free) on a daily basis sprinked on the greens.  A multivitamin can be offered once to twice a week.

Outdoor Housing: When you eventually (inevitable based on size) move your tortoise to your yard, you want to make sure that the grass is natural (no pesticides or fertilizing agents).  These stong tonrtoises require a large area in which to freely roam.  Ensure a sturdy fence that can withstand digging and burrowing (sink it into the ground).  For a detailed list of which plants are edible for the tortoises, the California Turtle & Tortoise Club link is a good place to start  For a detailed list of which plants are poisonous or toxic, use  Provide adequate shelter in case of inclement or cold weather.  Cold, damp, and rainy weather may be dangerous.  Provide an insulated shed with a access ramp for shelter.  Also provide heating in the shed (either pig farrowing heat pads or heat lamps hung from the ceiling).  Protect smaller tortoises from predators.  House tortoises indoors during rainy weather and at night if needed due to cold and/or damp conditions.  Take care to make sure the tortoise will not climb over an obstacle and flip over.  A tortoise who is upside down for a prolonged period (if it is not able to right itself), can become dehydrated, overheated and even suffocate.

Special note on predators: Animals such as raccoons, opossums, dogs and cats may harm a tortoises (sometimes just in play).  Tortoises kept in front and easily accessible side yards are enticing for these predators.  Make sure all fencing is secure, to prevent the tortoise from escape and unwanted visitors from coming in.

Medical, & Vet Info: Immediately after acquisition, take your tortoise to a qualified reptile vet for an exam and consultation.  Many tortoises (especially new ones) are infested with parasites or have respiratory illnesses that require treatment.  Weight your tortoise once a month.  Annual examination (especially pre-hibernation), fecal examination, blood work and in some cases, survey radiographs (x-rays) are recommended to pick up on illness early in the course of disease.  Tortoises, as prey species, tend to hide their illness until it is very advanced, so a tortoise who acts in any way abnormally or stops eating or defecating should be seen immediately.

Quick Facts

Size:                                      up to 24-30” (60-75 cm) in length

Weight:                                  80-110 pounds (36-50 kg)

Longevity:                               Up to 54 years

Dimorphism:                           Mature males develop reverted marginal scales in the front

Temps:                                  85-105 F (29-40 C) day, 70s F (21-26 C) night

Maturity:                                Typically full growth within 15-20 years


  1. Raise the temperature to the high end of the range to help with immune function
  2. Soak twice a week
  3. Scrub the underside of his shell after soaking twice a week
  4. Bring in a fresh fecal sample for testing
  5. Bring in your uv-b light for testing
  6. Re-check if he declines or is not returning to normal


Copulation may take place anytime from June through March, but occurs most frequently right after the raining season, during the months from September through November. During the several copulation events which may take place each day, the female is weighted down by the much larger and heavier, and rather vocal, males. The females stay in one place during the event, with movement restricted to a side-to-side shifting of the hind quarters.

Soon after mating (generally between September and December), the developing eggs take up increasing room inside the female’s body. Food intake will decrease. Restless behavior will be noted as the female begins to roam the compound looking for suitable nesting sites. For five to fifteen days, four or five nests may be excavated before she finally selects the location in which the eggs will be laid. The site is generally in one of the trial nests. The digging may start like the usual pallet digging, but the female soon turns around and continues to dig using her hind legs.

Loose dirt is kicked out of the depression, and the female may frequently urinate into the depression. Once it reaches approximately 2 feet (.6 m) in diameter and approximately 3-6 inches (7-14 cm) deep, a further depression, measuring some eight inches (20 cm) across and in depth, will be dug out towards the back of the original depression. The work of digging the nest may take up to five hours; the speed with which it is dug seems to be dependent upon the relative hardness of the ground. It usually takes place when the ambient air temperature is around 78 F (27 C). Once the nest is dug, the female begins to lay an egg every three minutes. Clutches may contain 15-30 or more eggs. Tortoises in warmer climates where they are outdoors most of the year may double clutch. After the eggs are laid, the female fills in the nest, taking an hour or more to fully cover them all.

Eggs incubate in the ground for eight months. They have been successfully incubated in captivity, using enclosed containers half-filled with vermiculite and water in a ratio of 1:1-2 by weight, or in open containers in chick incubators with water replenished as needed. Both the closed container and the incubator were opened once a week to allow fresh oxygen to reach the eggs. Incubation temperatures ranged from 82.5-84 F (28-29 C), with hatching taking place between 118-156 days later, with some hatchlings emerging as early as 92 days; one zoo reported hatchlings emerging as late as 170 days later (Stearns). The length of time from the first pipping to actual emergence of the hatchling from the shell may vary as well, from 24-72 hours. Some have almost no yolk left, while still others have a sizable yolk sac still attached, as much as 25% of their total mass. Such hatchlings are placed on damp paper towels in individual covered containers and maintained at 84 F (29 C) until the yolk is absorbed.


Hatchlings are 1.5-2 inches (4-6 cm) carapace length. They are somewhat long and narrow, oval-shaped, weighing less than one ounce (20-25 gm). Their scutes are pale yellow, almost sandy colored, bordered in brown. Hatchlings have been observed with supernumerary scales, additional and often irregular or asymmetrical scales on their carapace. Hatchlings are aggressive right from the start, and quite active, starting their ramming behavior when just a few days old. Anything may be subject to ramming, including furnishings in their enclosures.

Hatchlings may be maintained indoors in aquariums. Keep them on paper pellets (Yesterday’s News) in order to keep a clean environment.  Half of the enclosure should be placed on a heating pad enabling the hatchling to thermoregulate itself.  In addition, a heat lamp to provide a focal basking spot with a 105-110 (40-43 C) basking surface temperature should be provided in one corner of the enclosure on the warm side. To provide the necessary ultraviolet B exposure, hatchlings kept inside must be given 10-12 hours a day exposure to UVB-producing lights.

Hatchlings may also be housed outdoors during the day during clement weather in an enclosure suitably protected against entry or damage from predators. As with outdoor enclosures for adults, hatchlings must be provided with cooler retreats and food for foraging.

Hatchlings may start feeding right away or may not eat for the first couple of weeks; the first defecation may take longer. Food should be put out right away, however, and each day thereafter until it starts feeding. Once it starts feeding, food should be offered every other day, with any leftovers removed from the enclosure. Food selection of hatchlings tend towards more succulent plants; offer dark greens such as collards, kale, dandelion, grasses. Analysis of self-selected hatchling diets showed them to be composed of 4% protein, 5% fiber, and 71% carbohydrate, with 76 calories per 100 grams.

Many breeders, veterinarians, and researchers believe that no animal protein, other than what they may incidentally pick up while grazing out of doors, need or should be given to hatchlings or adults.

Twice weekly, hatchlings housed in enclosures should be bathed in shallow tepid water. Short, fifteen minute soaks helps to stimulate elimination.

Hatchling vs. Adult sulcata

Hatchling vs. Adult sulcata