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Keeping Tortoises

by Linda Jenkinson |

Sulcata Tortoises: Clifford & Cleo

Clifford & Cleo.

All tortoises are turtles but not all turtles are tortoises.

Although both belong to the order Testudines or Chelonia (reptiles whose bodies are attached to a shell), turtles are very different than the land-loving animal we call a tortoise.

There are many different species of tortoises.Reptiles Magazine lists 19. Before you acquire a tortoise use a resource like Reptiles Magazine or The Tortoise Trust to decide on which species will be most compatible with you and your lifestyle.

Most turtles are either carnivorous or omnivorous and most tortoises are vegetarians. With rare exception, tortoises don't swim. They are heavier bodied and lack the buoyancy of their aquatic turtle cousins.

Feeding Tortoises

Although some tortoise keepers feed their reptiles anywhere from a week to ten-days apart, we feed our tortoises a little each day, considering that in the wild they would forage daily for their food.

Tortoises don't have teeth. Their mouths have a hard, sharp edge that is used for biting. Although both of our Sulcatas were from the same clutch, Cleo, the smaller one has some kind of birth defect that gives her an under bite and causes her bottom beak to grow over the top one. We wonder if that is the reason she has stayed so much smaller than her brother. It makes it difficult for her to eat, so we trim her beak with an animal clippers, just like you would clip your nails.

Red and green leaf lettuces, romaine, turnip greens, collards, and mustard greens are readily available at most large grocers. Spring mix or radicchio (a leafy type of chicory that they love) is a special treat we sometimes mix in with our tortoises' other greens. In the summer, in addition to store-bought greens, we pick and feed our tortoises fresh plantain and dandelions.

We dust our tortoises' vegetables with a light helping of Vitamin D and calcium. These supplements help them develop the bones their bodies need as well as help keep their shells in good condition.

When we can, we bring them outdoors on warm days to let them forage for themselves. You never know how fast a tortoise can really run until you have to keep track of one in your garden They are like little tanks and they can go!

Tortoises and Water

In addition to our Sulcatas, we also have a Russian Tortoise, Margie, who came to us as a rescue. While we have a water dish for Margie, the Sulcatas don't really need one. Actually, like many other reptiles, most tortoises get the hydration they need from the food they eat.

Tortoises need to be able to fully immerse their heads to drink and regular water dishes are easily tipped over. Yet, the water has to be shallow enough that they can easily lift their heads completely clear of it.

Most water dishes would be too shallow for Clifford, the larger of our two Sulcatas. We let Clifford and his sister Cleo soak in a tub while we clean their habitat. The water we soak them in is tepid to the touch so as not to be too cold, but also not to scald them.

The tortoise shell

One of the most distinctive things about the tortoise is its shell. A tortoise’s shell is actually an exoskeleton that protects its body and shields it from predators. The top part of the tortoise's shell is called the carapace. It is made up of 50-60 plates called scutes. The bottom half of the shell is called the “plastron”(1). In addition to being attached to the tortoise's body, a bony bridge connects the two parts of the shell, carapace and plastron to each other.

Most tortoise species have a pretty distinct shell pattern, but you can tell how well most are growing by the looks of their scutes. Growth lines, the groups of lines between the scutes, should stay thin and the tortoise's scutes should be smooth. When scutes begin to deviate from what is normal for the species, the problem can usually be traced back to diet: either feeding too much too often or feeding the wrong foods altogether. Sometimes, though, poor growth could be due to poor lighting.

Lighting for Tortoises

Like all reptiles, tortoises are cold blooded. They need an area in their habitat where they can warm up. The easiest and safest way to give them that area is a basking light.

We have used regular light bulbs with no adverse affects on our tortoises. If you are keeping tortoises in a basement where there is no natural light, you probably need lights that simulate natural sunlight, but if your room has natural light, your tortoises need a basking bulb much more than a lamp for light. Keep a watch on their shell construction and if their scutes start looking less than typical for their species, add a UVA/UVB fluorescent bulb to their habitat.

Putting Tortoises Together

Tortoises are so easy care and appealing, before you know it you will likely want more than one. You may want to get your tortoise a companion, but remember, reptiles don't look at life the way we do. Tortoises don't partner for life. While some tortoises are quite social others prefer a solitary life.

Also consider size. The bigger the tortoise, the more space he/she will need as well as more food. Sulcatas are one of the largest breeds and when fully grown, can weigh up to 200 pounds. Our Clifford eats a substantial amount and also "bullies" little Cleo pushing her aside to get the best bits of food.

Captive bred tortoises of the same breed can usually be kept together, but be very careful if you decide to keep two or more species together. Dietary and habitat requirements can differ from breed to breed.

Although they are captive bred, our Sulcatas require a temperature of from 80 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit to simulate their natural Sahara desert environment. While our Russian, Margie does have a light for basking, ambient temperatures 85° F or over could cause serious health problems for her(2).

Moreover, not all species are temperamentally compatible with each other. As noted above, some are very outgoing and others are aloof. Put them together and you will end up with two unhappy animals.

Additionally, wild caught animals may have developed immunities to ongoing bacteria or parasites that they carry with them to their new homes. These organisms could be deadly to captive bred animals, even if they are of the same species.

Finally, different species have different dietary requirements as well as likes and dislikes. In the wild, the Russian tortoise eats certain flower heads, but here in the north it is difficult to find organic flowers in the winter so we feed Margie a variety of leafy greens and vegetables. Our two Sulcatas eat greens as well, but we also keep Timothy hay and/or orchard grass always available for them. Even if Margie would eat hay (and she probably wouldn't), it would be too high in protein for her.

It all comes down to what breed you are keeping. We've had groups of Russians and Hermanns, and they are both gregarious species. On the other hand we also have had an African and a Redfoot tortoise, both of which were happy to live alone.

Resources

  1. “The Difference Between Turtles, Tortoises, and Terrapins, and Other Turtle Facts.” Accessed July 20, 2016. http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/01/turtle-facts/.
  2. “CTTC - Russian Tortoise, Testudo Horsfieldii by Mary Anderson Cohen.” Accessed July 20, 2016. http://tortoise.org/archives/russ.html.

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