Sulcata Tortoise Care Guide: Everything You Need to Know

The Sulcata Tortoise is the most popular species of pet tortoise in the world.

Also known as African Spurred Tortoises they are loved for their unique personalities – many owners say they behave in a similar way to dogs.

If you want a tortoise with a fun and courageous personality then look no further.

Sulcata Tortoises can be housed indoors or outdoors. However, once they reach their adult size of 100 pounds, they will need a very large enclosure to roam, graze and dig.

Our care guide below will outline what it takes to raise a healthy and happy Sulcata, how to set up their enclosure, what to feed them, and good husbandry practices.

Sulcata Tortoise

Sulcata Tortoise Overview

Sulcata tortoises originate from the deserts of Africa.

The Sulcata Tortoise is an extremely popular pet and is known for its immense size, tan and brown shell, and large scales.

Before adopting a baby Sulcata it is best to talk with a local pet store and re-home an adult Sulcata as there is an excess of Sulcatas worldwide.

They make ideal pets for first-time reptile owners who are ready for a lifelong commitment. This species can live for over 100 years.

Typically they are solitary pets and thrive in captivity when raised in areas that are hot and dry year-round. Southern states like Texas are ideal.

Because of their huge size, adult sulcatas can grow to over 100 pounds, they need to be housed outdoors – remember that they are avid diggers before you set one loose in your backyard!

Are Sulcata Tortoises Good Pets?

Sulcatas are known to be very sociable with their owners. They can form relationships with their owner, recognize them, and they have unique personalities.

The Sulcata is a curious and docile tortoise that makes a great pet – even for households with young children.

If you live somewhere warm and have a large yard then this species is a perfect choice for you.

What We Like

Pros

  • Relatively easy to care for once their enclosure is built.
  • A very long lifespan which means they will be with you for life.
  • Outgoing and individual personalities.

Cons

  • Burrowing behaviors can lead to lots of damage in your yard.
  • Giant size requires a lot of space to roam and graze.
  • Need very hot temperatures and a basking spot greater than 100 degrees.

Species Appearance

Sulcata Tortoise Shell

The Sulcata Tortoise’s yellowish skin and tan to brown shell make them easy to spot! It also helps them camouflage in their native sandy desert environment.

Are The African Spurred Tortoise and African Spur Thigh Tortoise The Same?

Yes, the Sulcata’s other common names, the African Spurred Tortoise and Spur Thigh Tortoise are because of the two or three spurs located on their thighs. They also have very prominent overlapping and large scales on their front and back legs.

The top of their shell is oval in shape and has several well-defined grooves. Their scutes are lighter in the middle and outlined by a much darker brown color.

Once these tortoises reach 15 pounds, it is possible to distinguish males from females:

  • The bottom of males’ shells (i.e. plastron) is curved inwards vs. females that are flat.
  • Males develop anal scutes that are “V” in shape and females develop “U” shaped scutes.
  • Males have longer tails than females.

Although some are slightly lighter, and others darker, most Sulcatas have the same typical yellow, tan, and brown color. However, there are ivory and albino morphs that are much lighter in color.

What’s In  A Name?

You will see these tortoises referred to by several names. Here’s an explanation of its various names.

As previously mentioned, they are named African Spurred Tortoises (or Spur Thigh) for the spurs on their thighs.

This tortoise species gets the name Sulcata from the deep grooves in their shells. Sulcata is from the Latin ‘sulcus’ meaning ‘furrow’, the grooves made by a plow, which the grooves in the Sulcata’s shell resemble.

The Sulcata/African Spurred Tortoise scientific classification is Centrochelys sulcata but you may also see it referred to as Geochelone sulcata. Geochelone sulcata was its previous classification before changing to Centrochelys sulcata.

Centrochelys is the genus for African tortoises, like sulcatas, and Geochelone is for Asian tortoises.

Personally, I think Sulcata is the more appealing name of them all and probably why it is the most used.

How Big Do Sulcata Tortoises Get?

A baby Sulcata is born at around two inches in size. Their growth rate will vary greatly based on their diet, enclosure, and environment.

Healthy tortoises will reach seven inches at one year old and gain five to ten pounds each year.

They are very slow growers and won’t reach their adult size until 15 to 20 years old.

However, they will become large tortoises. An adult sulcata is very different from the baby tortoises you started with. Sulcata tortoises are the third largest species of tortoise in the world.

They are second only to the Galapagos and Aldabra tortoises, both of which are island tortoises. So sulcata tortoises are in fact the largest of mainland tortoises.

Adult female sulcata tortoises will typically weigh 70 to 90 pounds and measure 24 to 30 inches. Males will be slightly larger than females.

Some of the largest and oldest Sulcatas have reached weights much greater than 100 pounds.

Sulcata Tortoise Care Guide

Sulcata Tortoise Food

Sulcata Tortoise Diet and Food Guide

This tortoise is a herbivore. In the wild, they eat a variety of grasses and other plants. The same diet should be fed in captivity. Ideally, they should receive many different kinds of greens.

Many different flowers can be used to add some variety to their diet:

  • Spring mixes.
  • Kale.
  • Collard greens and turnip greens.
  • Mulberry leaves and grape leaves.
  • Orchard grass hay.
  • Cactus pads.
  • Most lawn grasses.

At least 80% of their daily intake should be from the greens and grasses mentioned above. Fruits and vegetables should not be a major component of a sulcata tortoise’s food intake. Pumpkin and watermelon rinds are a good occasional treat.

Older Sulcatas will spend most of their day grazing in the yard. It is important not to treat your lawn with pesticides or fertilizers as they can be toxic to tortoises.

Their diet can be supplemented with commercial pellets, however, most of their nutrition should come from fresh greens and grass.

Calcium

Calcium is an important nutrient that can accidentally be overlooked by beginners, as there may be too little calcium in the food you give them.

In the wild, these tortoises receive calcium from roots, soil, bone pieces, and snail shells.

In captivity, you can either give them a calcium supplement or cuttlefish bones. If you choose to give them a calcium supplement, use it two to three times a week and make sure it doesn’t have vitamin D3 – too much can be toxic.

Water

As a reptile that thrives in the desert their water intake is not very high. To ensure they receive an adequate amount of water, you can soak their daily greens for a few minutes before feeding.

A shallow water bowl can also be provided but should be cleaned often as they tend to defecate in it.

Finally, it is important to soak your tortoise in shallow warm water two times a week for at least 15 minutes to keep their skin healthy.

Sulcata Tortoise Lifespan

Sulcata Tortoise

Most Sulcatas live for 80 to 100 years in captivity – they are a lifelong commitment.

This species is a very hardy reptile that thrives in the harsh conditions of a desert. However, there are a few health issues that they face in captivity if not properly housed or fed a correct diet:

  • Feeding a high protein diet or keeping humidity levels too low in their enclosure can cause a pyramiding of their scutes.
  • They are prone to infections from damp and neglected substrate. These infections normally present themselves as white patches on their skin or shell and are usually associated with a foul smell.
  • Dehydration is a common health issue. It is usually associated with weight loss, lethargy, flaky skin, and dry feces. Hatchlings are extremely prone to dehydration as they have very thin skin and can dry out quickly.
  • Metabolic bone disease is also common in tortoises that are not housed or fed correctly. Sulcata tortoises that are not fed enough calcium or vitamin D or not provided with enough UVB light will develop shell abnormalities.

Other potential health issues in captivity are respiratory infections (in common with other reptiles), egg binding, and bladder stones.

Most health issues are associated with a decrease in activity and weight loss.

You should regularly monitor your pet’s weight, and if it starts to decline at any point, it is best to consult with a vet.

Signs They Are Healthy

  • Uniform shell free of debris, flakes, and irregularities.
  • Good appetite and activity.
  • Mouth, nose, eyes, and ears clear with no signs of discharge or irritation.
  • Well-formed and firm feces and white urates.

Sickness Symptoms

  • Mouth breathing or drooping of the head.
  • Weight loss and lethargy.
  • Watery feces.
  • Discharge from the mouth, nose, eyes, or ears.

Sulcata Tortoise Enclosure

Sulcata Tortoise Enclosure

What Is The Natural Habitat Of African Spurred Tortoises?

Sulcata Tortoises are also named African Spurred Tortoises because they are found in the deserts and grasslands of northern Africa on the southern edge of the Sahara desert.

In its natural habitat in the wild, an African spurred tortoise uses burrowing as a way to escape the heat and to absorb water. Many other desert species will take over their burrows to also escape the extreme temperatures.

Their dens can reach depths of up to 10 feet.

Therefore the density of the soil is extremely important to their natural behavior. If the soil is too firm they are unable to burrow and if the soil is too loose their burrows fall apart.

Start Them Indoors

Sulcata tortoises should be housed indoors until your new tortoise is large enough to escape predators.

Although this tortoise grows slowly, it is best to start with a very large tank as they will still outgrow smaller tanks relatively fast.

A 50-gallon glass tank is recommended for their first year. Plastic tubs and turtle tables are also suitable.

After their first year, they should move to an outdoor enclosure.

Time To Go Outdoors

After they reach two years of age or eight inches in size they should be moved to an outdoor pen with lots of soil to carry out their natural burrowing behaviors and with enough space to graze.

When moving them outdoors, it is important to include a well-insulated hiding box to help with homeostasis and with avoiding predators. In cooler regions, you may need to go one step further and provide them with an outdoor heated shed.

  • Enclosure Type: outdoor.
  • Size: 100 square feet with 12-inch walls.
  • Lighting: UVB lighting (if housed indoors).
  • Bedding: Eco earth and sand.

An outdoor enclosure should be at least 100 square feet and have walls or a sturdy fence that are at least two feet tall and one foot deep.

Sulcatas are quite strong so the walls must be securely built. You can use cinderblocks to improve the wall’s stability.

The fence or wall should go underground by around a foot, otherwise, they could burrow underneath the fence line and get out.

Sulcata tortoises are avid climbers so their enclosure should have logs, rocks, and other features for them to scale. Hiding places should also be added to their den.

A shallow water dish is another acceptable addition.

Because they originate from hot arid climates, misting is not recommended. You should however provide a shallow soaking dish or soak them in shallow water at least twice a week.

Sulcata Tortoise Size

Lighting and Heating

As ectotherms, tortoises control their body temperature through their environment. Tortoises require UVB light to process calcium and produce vitamin D3.

If they are housed outdoors they will get their required UVB from direct sunlight.

For indoor enclosures, you will need a UVB light source. Because they also need a basking bulb it is possible to buy light bulbs that produce both heat and UVB rays. You can purchase a hood for the enclosure that can hold the necessary basking and UVB bulbs.

Sulcata Tortoises need a daytime temperature of between 85 to 95 degrees and a basking spot greater than 100 degrees.

Maintaining the correct humidity level is necessary to help keep your reptile hydrated and to maintain healthy skin.

They need a humidity of 40% to 60% with hatchlings requiring closer to 60%. A hygrometer should be used to monitor humidity.

Sulcata Tortoise Bedding

A mixture of earth and sand is preferred for a baby Sulcata when housed indoors. There are some other substrates that will suffice if you are unable to obtain that mix: cypress mulch, aspen mulch, and orchid bark.

Their substrate should be changed weekly and their enclosure should be scrubbed with soap and warm water at least once a month.

When housing them outside make sure they have plenty of non-toxic grass to graze and soil to bury themselves in.

Clean their pen of excrement and food scraps daily.

Typical Behavior

Sulcata Tortoise Bathing

Sulcatas have two main activities they spend most of their time doing depending on the season:

  1. Grazing
  2. Burrowing

When temperatures are cooler they will graze for hours because their large size requires a lot of calories.

As temperatures become hotter and more hospitable they will dig extensive burrows to hide from the sun in their muddy wallow. Interestingly they also rub their saliva on their arms to help cool themselves down.

Sulcata tortoises will spend their mornings basking in the sun to raise their body temperatures after a cool evening.

In the wild, they are particularly aggressive towards each other. They will attempt to flip each other over and males will ram to show dominance. Females tend to be less aggressive but can still show signs of aggression. For these reasons, it is best to house them individually.

Tortoises use several forms of communication such as vocalization, physical movements, and pheromones. They also use their mouth and feet to explore different features of their environment through taste and touch.

Unlike other tortoises and turtles, the Sulcata does not hibernate in the wild. However, they may occasionally enter short periods of brumation in captivity.

Brumation is a state of semi-hibernation where reptiles are sluggish, and sleepy during cold periods.

Handling Advice and Tips

The Sulcata Tortoise does not enjoy handling.

Hatchling and juveniles get stressed during handling and adults often become too heavy to lift!

If you do need to handle your Sulcata, then do not pin or restrain it. Move it slowly, be controlled, and do not lift them very far above the ground.

Wash your hands before and after handling to prevent transmitting bacteria.

Sulcata Tortoise Price

Baby Sulcata Tortoise

Within the pet trade, these tortoises usually cost between $100 and $200 if purchased from a pet store.

It is possible to find them for free from people looking to rehome. Because they are very popular and have lifespans of over 100 years, there are many tortoises available for rehoming.

You should perform a full physical exam on any tortoise before adoption:

  • Check its nose, eyes, ears, and mouth for discharge
  • Check its shell for irregularities or deformities
  • They should also be bright, alert, and active.

Males initiate mating with females by encircling them and ramming. Females lay approximately 20 eggs and bury them 10 inches deep. It takes about eight months before the eggs will hatch.

Sulcata Tortoise Facts
Common NameAfrican Spurred Tortoise
Scientific NameCentrochelys sulcata
Price$100+
Size70 to 100 pounds (males are slightly bigger)
Lifespan80+ years
DietGrasses, leafy greens and hays
Tank Size100 square feet for adults
Humidity & TemperatureBasking temperature: 100°F
Cool side: 85 – 95°F
Popular AlternativesRed-Footed Tortoise
Russian Tortoise

Summary

Sulcata Tortoises can make excellent pets if owners do their research before adopting.

They need a lot of space to graze and do their best in warmer more arid climates. You should build a large outdoor enclosure with plenty of hiding spots and obstacles for your tortoise to climb and stock up on grasses.

Their extensive lifespan, charismatic personality, and ability to be housed outside, entices owners all over the world to buy them.

They can form strong relationships with their owners and are one of the most interesting tortoises in captivity.

What do you think about this species? Let us know below.

About Johnathan David 215 Articles
Johnathan leads the Everything Reptiles’ editorial team as our Editor in Chief. He has been a reptile hobbyist since childhood and after years in herpetoculture he has cared for many Geckos and Frogs.

27 Comments

  1. I love the sulcata, very friendly and even the hatchlings quickly learn to come and eat out of my hand. Best tortoise I’ve owned.

    • Please please help me to help my baby, I have one, he just turned 1 & all of the sudden he’s not eating hes very lethargic he doesn’t come to me his eyes are like closed they look swollen I’m very upset , he’s my baby please guide me to what I need to do, I took him to the reptile vet, they were no help I went to where I got him & she was no help, please help me, my name is Tammy & I need help for my baby

      • It sounds like he needs Vitamin A. Buy some Gerber strained carrots and sweet potatoes and or squash. Make your baby warm water (not hot) bath of the baby food puree and water using a 50% to 50% ratio. Use a bowl with high sides so he can’t crawl out. Place your tortoise in the bath mixture halfway up his sides. Let him soak in the mixture for up to a half-hour daily. Repeat the bath for three consecutive days. Keep him quiet and warm. Do not use a coil-bulb with tortoises as they are known to cause eye damage. Keep your humidity in their enclosure to 80% and temperature 85 degrees day and night with a 95-100 F basking temperature. Add a pinch of calcium to their food but not more as more can be as problematic as not enough.

      • Hello Tammy, I don’t know if you have already gotten help with this, but it sounds like maybe not hot enough in his enclosure. If the appetite has declined and it looks like he might have a cold or a vitamin B deficiency and that can have to do with lighting. You should always have a UVB light over them along with a UVA light and an undertank heater for digestion. Put the heating units on the same side of the tank and it will give him a side that is cooler to get away from heat if needed.
        Hopefully this will help you and your tortoise.

  2. I really enjoy our sulcatas, they definitely recognize us visually and by our voices. Learned a lot about their outdoor enclosure, which we have them in and are planning to expand shortly, so what we learned will be helpful
    Thank you!

  3. Why on earth didn’t you mention that these tortoises need to be soaked at least 2-3 times a week in order to prevent pyramiding? In all of your example photos, the tortoises are exhibiting moderate to severe pyramiding of the shell. This is an easily preventable condition, and anyone who knows anything about sulcatas understands this.

    • Do you mean like this? “Finally, it is important to soak your tortoise in shallow warm water two times a week for at least 15 minutes to keep their skin healthy.”

    • To prevent pyramiding (abnormal shell growth in the shape of a pyramid) in your tortoise, you need to make sure your pet’s diet, humidity, exercise, and sunlight are correct. There is no cure to reverse the abnormality once it occurs. It is thought to stem from metabolic bone disease (MBD).

      Diet – When in captivity, tortoises usually need a variety of food sources. Fruits and vegetables, hay and grasses, weeds, flowers, cactus, Feeding Muzuri. Do not overfeed your pet. The bulk of their diet should come from pesticide-free grasses and hay.

      Too Much Protein – Only feeding hay may provide too much protein in the diet. If the tortoise shares an environment with other animals like cats or dogs, their food and feces can be too high in protein.

      Too Little Calcium – Always provide a Cuttle fishbone in his environment. Adding a small pinch of calcium to the diet is tricky as too much can be as detrimental as too little.

      Hydration and Humidity – Provide a good source of water for the tortoises to bathe in and change the water regularly. Humidity for baby tortoises should be 80%.

      Too Many Oxalates In Diet – This can cause calcium absorption problems. Some foods are high in oxalates that should be eaten sparingly: parsley, chives, and spinach.

      Not enough D3, UVB – Sunlight is very important to the health of tortoises. They need direct sunlight and UVB rays to synthesize vitamin D3 for proper calcium absorption for strong bones and carapace.

  4. You need to clarify the enclosure size of 100 square feet is only while they are less than 10 inches long. People, including Wikipedia are citing that as THE habitat size, with no explanation. So, people are providing too small of enclosures for adult sulcatas.

    • That is a great point, the more space they can have the better. How much space do you allow for your adult sulcata?

    • Indeed, the 100 square feet is a minimum to be provided. Their natural range is, of course, much larger, so the larger the better. But most importantly, Sulcata should have plenty of opportunities to climb, burrow and hide within that enclosure. In my opinion, a completely flat 200 square feet enclosure will cause them more stress than a 100 square feet of an appropriately constructed enclosure.

  5. Tank size of 100 square feet is ridiculously wrong. The adult tortoise is 18 inches long. This is wrong and needs to be corrected. Do your research.

    • Hmmm…he said large yard and a minimum of 100 square feet. As far as Wikipedia is concerned I would bet it’s not based on this article. I’m curious-do you get good results with your approach to suggestions and corrections?

    • Wow… JD, Seems like ya got a shit ton of the 100% Pure-Breed all American KARENS on this well written guide for care. Was gonna lol and scroll threw but thought I should let you know I Love your handle on that and loved the read. Learned a ton, thanks a bunch!

      • Omg I was thinking the same!!! Love how the Karens come at JD with info that isn’t even mildly correct… (Like the Karen who thinks soaking a tortoise prevents pyramiding… Gosh Karen, do your research!). I’m appreciative of anyone who puts any info about Sulcata care that is accurate, so I felt this was a good read and helped me learn more about the kind of care my hatchling needs.

    • From the article: “Unlike other tortoises and turtles, the Sulcata does not hibernate in the wild. However, they may occasionally enter short periods of brumination in captivity.”

  6. Please could anyone provide me with articles/ research evidence about the risks to tortoise eyesight associated with ubv coil lamps. I read mixed reports from owners and have previously used a strip light with no issues.
    We have a 60 year old leopard tort who has been in our possession for 13 years.
    We moved to hotter climes 2 years ago and she is living her best life, however in the cooler months requires some compliment with ubv becuse of reduced natural sunlight .. Thanks in anticipation

    • The condition is called Photo-Kerato Conjunctivitis in reptiles.
      It seems to be caused by lamps which irradiate wavelengths shorter than 290 nm (which is the natural lower limit of UVB radiation), and that are placed too close to the animal and at eye-level in stead than vertically above it. It can be associated with other UVB damages (for example to the skin).
      The condition (in short, PKC) is still being studied, you can search it on Google Scholar for the most recent developments, but generally speaking you should be able to avoid it by checking the characteristics of your UVB bulb and buying a high-quality one (and of course choosing the right wattage bulb and placing it at the right distance for your specific animal).

    • Eye issues can be quite common with these Tortoises.
      And a number of things can be the root cause, but in most cases it is simply an eye infection from sand or dirt getting below the eyelid. If he’s scratching his eye this might be the case. Vitamin A deficiency can cause eyes to swell. If we’re talking about a young animal which you still keep in an indoor enclosure, he might have Photo-Kerato Conjunctivitis, which is caused by UVB bulbs with wavelengths shorter than 290nm, or that are placed to close to the animal. If this persists it is best to contact a vet!

  7. I thought it was pretty helpful to read all of the care. Mainly the outdoor care. My Sulcata is 1 1/2. She’ll be going outside full time as soon as temps stop dropping below 50 at night. I was particularly searching for what kind of terrain I needed to provide. I have ample space but wasn’t sure if she actually neeeeeded a variety of terrain or if that was just cosmetic and fun from an owners perspective. So the bit on giving them things to climb, obstacles and hiding places was helpful. She has a burrow, a shallow water bowl and a place for shade a shelter plenty of grass and dirt. But now I will add smooth rocks and a couple dividers to create some activity for her. Thanks.

    • Glad we could help!
      An area similar to her natural habitat, where she can dig, climb, hide and thermoregulate, an area where there are grazing areas, rocks and other physical features, will keep her engaged in her most natural behavior. She will certainly thank you.

  8. We have a 14 y/o Male sulcata who has a favorite hide out under plants during the day (not where he sleeps at night) and he poops quite a bit in there (and other places to be sure!) and lays on it. Do we need to go in and clean it out? In theit natural habitat, is this common practice?

    • Hi there. I do not think that is something they would do in nature, at least not regularly. In nature they would experience a much larger range that reduces the chances of sitting for long periods of time in places where they have pooped. I would suggest cleaning it, yes, although it probably isn’t a massive problem.

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