Pyramiding in tortoises is the abnormal excessive upward growth of the scutes (the scutes make up the outer part of the tortoise’s carapace).
The growth ends up looking like pyramids on the tortoise’s shell, hence the term – pyramiding. Not only does pyramiding in tortoises look unnatural, but it also comes with several health complications as a tortoise’s shell isn’t supposed to grow that way.
It’s fair to say that pyramiding is one of the biggest health concerns of pet tortoises, especially since it’s very common and usually irreversible.
Almost all of the causes of pyramiding can be traced back to poor husbandry.
Pyramiding in Tortoises
Table of Contents
1. Causes of Pyramiding
Pyramiding can be avoided with proper husbandry though this is easier said than done.
Here are some of the factors that can cause pyramiding in tortoises.
1.1 Low Humidity
Low humidity has been known to cause pyramiding among sulcata tortoises, and this species is one that is commonly kept as pets. As you can imagine, this is quite a serious issue.
Keeping the humidity levels optimal can be difficult especially since most tortoises are housed outdoors. Even tortoises endemic to arid regions still have access to moisture down in their burrows.
Low humidity is really only a problem if you live in an area with humidity levels lower than 60 percent most of the year and your tortoise is housed outside.
Different tortoises have different humidity needs. However, for adult tortoises, the humidity in the enclosure needs to be at least 60 percent. For juveniles, humidity levels of at least 65 percent must be maintained.
1.2 Imbalance Diet
Another big cause of shell pyramiding is poor feeding habits. Many tortoise keepers feed their pets diets that are excessive in protein and/or fat. Additionally, some keepers tend to overfeed their tortoises.
All of this can lead to pyramiding.
1.3 Lack of Exercise
Another potential cause of shell pyramiding is inactivity. This is common among tortoises housed inside. Many have tiny enclosures that don’t encourage exercise.
Make sure that the enclosure is large enough and has several decorations/accessories that will entice the tortoise to come out and investigate.
1.4 Lack of Exposure to UVB light
Tortoises like many other reptiles need UVB in order to synthesize vitamin D3, which is essential for shell and bone development.
Vitamin D3 deficiency can lead to metabolic bone disease as well as shell pyramiding. To help prevent this, make sure the tortoise has enough access to UVB light.
2. How to Prevent or Halt Pyramiding
Here are some steps you can take to stop or prevent shell pyramiding.
2.1 Maintaining Optimal Humidity Levels In An Indoor Enclosure
For tortoises housed in a tortoise table or indoor enclosure, keeping humidity levels optimal isn’t too difficult. You should try to aim for humidity levels of around 65 to 70 percent.
Here are some steps to take.
Invest In A Hygrometer
A digital hygrometer can help you keep track of the humidity levels within the enclosure. This is absolutely necessary if you are a beginner, but is just good practice to have in general.
A digital hygrometer such as the Zoo Med Hygrometer & Thermometer is an excellent choice. With this, you can also ensure that the humidity levels are 60 percent or above.
Use Moisture-Retaining Substrate
In order to maintain a high humidity environment, use high moisture-retaining substrate as bedding.
This ensures that too much moisture doesn’t escape the enclosure. There are several choices out there. Substrates such as Reptile Prime Coconut Fiber Bedding, Zoo Med Repti Bark, and Zoo Med Eco Earth are excellent choices.
Spray Mist The Enclosure Or Invest In A Humidifier
One of the best ways to keep humidity levels high is to invest in a humidifier for the enclosure.
The Polyte One-Hand Pressure Sprayer is a nifty little sprayer that produces very fine water droplets. Try and mist the enclosure daily.
If your locale is very dry, mist the enclosure twice a day. Mist the walls and the substrate of the enclosure and not necessarily the tortoise.
You can also invest in a reptile enclosure humidifier such as the Coospider Reptile Fogger.
Have A Humid Box In The Enclosure
This includes having a hide (you can use a clayey pot or a plastic tub with an opening and can use dampened sphagnum moss. You can also attach a sponge to the top of the container and it daily.
If you want to get more in depth you can consider automating the process with a reptile fogger as well. It just depends on how creative you want to get.
Bathe The tortoise Two Or Three Times A Week
This essentially means soaking the tortoise in a shallow bath of warm water for an hour. Clean the tortoise’s shell while it soaks.
Make sure the water level isn’t too high and you should stay with the tortoise to ensure it doesn’t accidentally drown. Remember in general tortoises do not swim.
2.2 Offer A High Fiber Diet Low In Protein And Low In Calcium
Tortoises are generally herbivores that feed mostly on grass and foliage in the wild. In captivity, it can be hard to feed them this high fiber diet.
If you can, give them foods high in fiber such as alfalfa, rye and bermudagrass, red leaf lettuce, collard greens, turnip greens, mulberry leaves, clover, radicchio, romaine lettuce, dandelion greens, opuntia cactus, mustard greens, and carrots. Older tortoises will also eat timothy hay.
For juveniles and growing tortoises, I believe the Mazuri Tortoise Diet and the Zoo Med Natural Tortoise Food are excellent choices.
Commercial tortoise diets need to be provided in a timely manner and according to the instructions. Tortoises can eat as much grass as they want. However, all other foods such as veggies and dark leafy greens need to be provided in moderated quantities which can vary by species of tortoise.
To ensure your tortoise gets the right amount of calcium in their diet, you can supplement their diet with calcium and vitamin D3 using supplements.
In addition to this, you can also give them dark leafy greens which are rich in calcium such as collard greens, spinach, and kale.
2.3 Install UVB Light Lamps
For tortoises housed outside, the sun is a great source of UVB light. In fact, the sun is the best source of UVB light. However, for tortoises housed inside that don’t have access to sunlight, you will need to install UVB light lamps.
Note: UVB bulbs need changed every 6 months. You can use UVB test cards to check them before changing.
There are several different types of UVB lamps designed for reptiles. The Reptisun 10.0 bulb and T5 HO lamp are two different styles but are both excellent choices.
Heat-producing full-spectrum lamps are also a good idea. Not only do they produce ample amounts of UVB light, but they also produce heat which warms up the enclosure. The Mega-Ray Mercury Vapor Bulb and the Zoo Med Power Sun Bulb are popular choices.
3. Getting Things Under Control
When noticed at a young age, shell pyramiding can be kept under control and even corrected as the juvenile grows into an adult. However, this is only possible when it’s caught in the early stages. While shell pyramiding is irreversible, the signs will be less noticeable if it is corrected early.
The early years are the most crucial. As such make sure that your tortoise is well-fed and the conditions in the enclosure are optimal.
If you notice raised scutes, on your tortoise, this could be an early warning sign of pyramiding. As you adjust the environmental conditions and its diet, make sure to document the process by taking regular pictures of your tortoise.
This will help you track the changes over the next few months, which will let you know if your treatment is the right one.
For adults, you can stop pyramiding from getting worse and keep it at a manageable level.
If you think your tortoise is pyramiding, we highly recommend that you see an expert for more guidance.
4. Why Is Shell Pyramiding Bad?
Is pyramiding such a bad thing? Well, firstly, shell pyramiding is usually an indication of poor conditions. This could be due to an improper diet and/or poor environmental conditions (such as low humidity).
If this is not corrected, it can lead to more problems.
Pyramiding can also interfere with movement. A high and heavy shell is a sign of metabolic bone disease, which symptoms include weak disfigured limbs.
The spinal cord can also be affected. In severe cases, this disorder can lead to paralysis.
It can also lead to reproductive issues with females struggling to lay eggs and males struggling to mate.
Pyramiding is a common issue with captive turtles and an issue that unfortunately is not reversible, but can easily be avoided or stopped in its tracks if caught early. In general wild tortoises won’t suffer from this as it primarily relates to the care or environment that is provided.
Key things to focus on are the space your tortoise has to be able to move around, diet it is provided, humidity levels, and lastly access to UVB light.
Some tortoise species are also more likely to be affected than others. Popular tortoises kept as pets that are more prone include Greek tortoise (Testudo graeca), Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni), Indian Star tortoise (Geochelone elegans), leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis), Marginated tortoise (Testudo marginata), red-footed tortoises (Chelonoidis carbonarius), and Sulcata tortoise (Centrochelys sulcata).
Over to you! Have you had to deal with pyramiding before? What brought you here to learn about it? Let us know about your experience below in the comments.