Tortoise Keeping 101
Part 1: Sulcata (African Spurred)
Tortoises are one of the oldest organisms on the earth today. They have survived meteors, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, ice ages, etc. This makes them great pets because their resilience makes them very hard to kill. However, they do need proper care and attention. Tortoises are found all over the planet. The Sulcata (pictured above in my hand) is found in the grasslands of Africa. They are smaller than a golf ball at birth but within five years of proper care, they can reach the size of a pumpkin, with sexually-matured adults reaching the size of a beach ball. The Sulcatas are popular in warmer states such as Arizona, California, Texas, and Nevada. They roam around backyards and eat weeds and grass and can with stand temperatures of 120 degrees Fahrenheit in summer and 50 degrees in winter. But unfortunately, since these tortoises thrive here in the southwest, people tend to accidentally and purposely breed them all the time. If you are thinking about adopting or buying a Sulcata, here are some quick tips to make sure they stay healthy.
- Make sure you will have a yard for your adult sulcata. These things are dinosaurs and will get huge... like 100 pounds in weight huge. A baby can live in a terrarium or plastic tote for a few years until it gains a good weight where a predator can't quickly snatch it. Then it needs to be outside where it belongs due to its size.
- Proper substrate. Substrate, for those of you who are not familiar with the term, just means bedding. Although Sulcatas come from a very dry climate, they tend to spend a lot of time burrowing underground where the humidity reaches up to 80 percent. These tortoises are capable of living above ground but prefer moist soil underneath where they can dig and stay hydrated. I usually use all natural planting soil (without the little white pieces) and shredded coconut fiber soil. Both of these hold moisture but also dry out quickly. You can even mix in some clay dirt. I usually spray the habitat once a week with a good amount of water. Since my habitat gets direct sun all morning, it keeps the above hot and dry and the underground hot and humid. I also suggest giving baby tortoises several inches of substrate so it encourages digging so THEY can control their humidity levels. Adults will need 2-4 feet of digging room below so plan accordingly.
- Lighting and heat. It is super critical that your tortoise receives UV in both A and B form. This will be close to the spectrum of light the sun produces. The UV is very important for baby tortoises. It helps with absorption of Vitamin D (just like humans), helps develop eyesight, keeps their carapace (shell) strong and durable, and also helps kill fungi in the enclosure. You can purchase UV bulbs at pet stores and reptile shops for around $25. They are required. Heat lamps are a touchy subject for Sulcatas. Heat lamps are great for heat but recent research shows that heat lamps that are too close to tortoises cause dehydration of the carapace and result in "pyramiding." Pyramiding is when the shell grows upward instead of outward. The scutes or individual tiles of the shell grow thick layers on top of itself to protect the tortoise from getting burnt or drying out. This may stunt growth, and also looks very unnatural. I recommend keeping heat lamps at least 12 inches from the tortoise at all times. I highly recommend heat pads because they don't cause pyramiding and it will encourage the baby tortoise to dig.
- Diet. These tortoises are often misfed. These tortoises eat grasses, fallen flowers, and cacti in the wild. Grass makes up about 80 percent of their diet and that should be the goal for your sulcata's diet. Baby tend to lean towards spring mix because it's easier to chew. I started mine with arugdula, baby kale, and collars greens. I chopped these up into a salad and my baby tortoises loved it. Gradually over time I would cut up grass and alfalfa hay and blend it in with the salad. Eventually, I got them to eat about 75 percent grass, and 25 percent leafy greens, with the occasional treat of squash, hibiscus flower and nopales cactus pad. My tortoises are only exposed to spring water and never touch tap water due to high volume of metals and chlorine.
- Hides. Always provide your tortoise with a place to hide away. Sulcatas tend to be hidden most of the day and all through the night. Like I said before, they are underground dwellers. A cave or box where they can easily go in and out and then around in should be at the cool side of the habitat. The lights should be at the opposite end to great a thermal gradient. This allows the animal to choose it's core temperature. The thick layer of substrate lets the animal choose its humidity levels. This is what reptiles do all day. They choose what their surroundings should be because their health directly relies on it due to being cold blooded.
- Last but not least, soaking. Sulcatas come from a desert or dry land enviroment but they still need hydration. Soak your tortoise in luke warm water that only reaches the bottom of their shell. You don't want it much deeper because the tortoise will feel like it's drowning and you don't want it to freak out. The baths help with digesting and hydration. Tortoises will pass urine and fecal matter during baths due to the warm water helping with digestion and secretion. This is good. Change out the water after they have soiled it and start fresh for a few minutes more. I always aim for about 15-20 minutes of soaking 2-3 times per week in the summer and once a week in cooler months.
I hope this helped with your decision to keep a Sulcata Tortoise. Always research and ask questions. These are wonderful creatures and it's been an honor working with them. Enjoy and thanks for reading! Please check out my other posts about different species of Tortoise and other reptiles! Cheers!