Sulcata Tortoise Care Guide: Everything You Need to Know

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

Also known as African Spurred Tortoises they are loved for their unique personalities – many say they behave similar 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

This tortoise originates 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 it is best to talk with local pet shops and re-home a senior as there is an excess of Sulcatas worldwide.

They make great 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 they need to be housed outdoors – remember they are avid diggers before setting 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 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.

Their other common name, the African Spurred Tortoise, is 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.

How Big Do Sulcata Tortoises Get?

Baby Sulcatas are 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.

Adult females 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 in a variety of grasses and other plants. This 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.
  • 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 is an important nutrient that can accidentally be overlooked by beginners.

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.

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. Sulcatas 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, 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

Sulcata Tortoises are found in the deserts and grasslands of northern Africa.

In the wild they use 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.

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

They should be housed indoors until they are large enough to escape predators.

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

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

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.

An outdoor enclosure should be at least 100 square feet and have walls 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.

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. 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 brumination in captivity.

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

These tortoises usually cost between $100 and $200 if purchased from a pet shop.

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 Name African Spurred Tortoise
Scientific Name Centrochelys sulcata
Price $100+
Size 70 to 100 pounds (males are slightly bigger)
Lifespan 80+ years
Diet Grasses, leafy greens and hays
Tank Size 100 square feet for adults
Humidity & Temperature Basking temperature: 100°F
Cool side: 85 – 95°F
Popular Alternatives Red-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 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.

Johnathan David Author Bio Picture
Johnathan David leads the editorial team at Everything Reptiles as our Editor in Chief. He brings decades worth of publishing experience. A reptile hobbyist since childhood, he has years' of experience in herpetoculture and has cared for Geckos, Skinks and a Poison Dart Frog.

2 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.

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