Sulcata Tortoise Care [Complete Care Guide]
Sulcata tortoise care is rewarding to a patient owner. And we mean very patient, because these huge tortoises can live for up to 70 years. Sulcata tortoises are the largest mainland tortoises in the world, and as such they need a lot of outdoor space.
If that doesn’t faze you, then Sulcata tortoises can be incredibly impressive pets. They are curious animals and have a docile, gentle nature. To enjoy this mighty species, our guide will teach you everything you need to know about Sulcata tortoise care.
Quick reference section
- Experience level: Intermediate to Advanced
- Family: Testudinidae
- Scientific name: Centrochelys sulcata
- Other names: African spur thigh tortoise, African Sulcata tortoise, African spurred tortoise
- Adult Male Size: 24 to 30 inches
- Adult Female Size: 18 to 20 inches
- Average Lifespan: 70 to 100+ years
- Average Price Range: $200 to $1500
- Where to buy?: CBReptile.com, tortoisetown.com
- Books: Sulcata Tortoise – Complete Owners Guide (Joseph Kinvebolg)
Interesting facts about Sulcata tortoises
Sulcata tortoises are the largest mainland species of tortoise in the world. Only the island-dwelling Galapagos and Aldabra tortoises are larger.
Sulcata tortoises are extremely efficient in their use of water. They only produce around 0.64 ml of urine per day. Their skins are very thick which helps to prevent fluid loss through transpiration.
When temperatures exceed 104 degrees Fahrenheit, a Sulcata tortoise will salivate heavily and smear the saliva on their forearms to cool themselves down.
Sulcata tortoises can be found in a couple of different morphs. One of the most popular (and expensive) is the Albino Sulcata tortoise.
What does a Sulcata tortoise look like?
Sulcata tortoises are BIG. These gentle giants have highly-domed carapaces covered in large thick scutes. Their coloration ranges from yellow to brown.
Sulcata tortoises have cream or tan to brown skin, and their legs are covered with bony scales and spurs. Their thick claws cause them to have a comical pigeon-like walk.
How big do Sulcata tortoises get?
Sulcata tortoises are the biggest mainland species on Earth. Males are almost always bigger than females and can reach up to 36 inches long in extreme cases. These huge specimens typically weight close to 200 lbs.
On average, Sulcata tortoises reach around 18 to 30 inches depending on sex, and usually weight between 80 and 110 lbs.
Where do Sulcata tortoises live?
Sulcata tortoises are a desert species endemic to the southern Sahara Desert in Africa. However, they can adapt to captive conditions across the United States.
What kind of habitat do Sulcata tortoises need?
In the wild, Sulcata tortoises live in an arid desert habitat as well as dry grass and scrublands and savannas.
Sulcata tortoises need a lot of room, and the best thing you can do is let them roam around your backyard or construct a custom outdoor enclosure for them.
If you live in colder climates, a large heated shed outdoors is ideal. In the warmest months, let your tortoise roam outside.
You can keep a Sulcata tortoise indoors in desperate circumstances, but they will need a whole large room to themselves.
How long do Sulcata tortoises live?
It isn’t know for sure exactly how long Sulcata tortoises can live for in captivity, but they can quite easily reach 70 to 100 years. There are unconfirmed reports of Sulcata tortoises living for nearly 200 years.
What do Sulcata tortoises eat?
These ponderous giants are exclusively herbivores, mainly grazing on grasses and other plants in their native habitats.
In captivity, a Sulcata tortoise diet should consist mainly of grazing grasses, hay, plants, and occasional leafy vegetables.
How do Sulcata tortoises breed?
Sulcata tortoise breeding mostly take place after the rainy season from September to November. The male becomes very vocal during copulation.
The females take a period of around 75 days after mating to lay their eggs. Around 60 days after mating, the female looks for a suitable nesting site and digs into the loose soil to build the nest.
Once the depression reaches 60 cm in diameter and 7 to 14 cm in depth, the female digs another hole measuring 20 cm across and 20 cm deep into the back of the original nesting hole.
Depending on the texture of the soil, it takes about five hours to dig the nest. The female then begins to lay eggs at a rate of one egg every 3 minutes. She can lay about 15- 30 eggs per clutch.
The female then covers the eggs with loose soil for them to hatch. The incubation takes around 120 days.
What predators do Sulcata tortoises face?
Due to their intimidating size, Sulcata tortoises face very few natural predators as adults. Juvenile Sulcata tortoises and eggs waiting to hatch are the most vulnerable.
At this stage of their lives, Sulcata tortoises are vulnerable to birds, lizards, snakes, and mammals such as raccoons.
Sulcata Tortoise Care sheet
If you live in a warm climate, you should almost always keep your Sulcata tortoise outside. A custom-built pen or enclosure will need to be large enough for your tortoise to roam. A strong fence or wall will be needed to corral your tortoise.
Build the foundations of your Sulcata tortoise enclosure deep enough that your tortoise can’t uproot the boundary by burrowing. The wall should be around 24 inches high from the surface, whilst the supports should be buried at least 12 inches underground. Concrete is a good barrier.
Sulcata tortoises have a tendency to break through thin partitions or even work out how to open sliding doors. Make sure that your enclosure can withstand their attention!
These giant tortoises are also fond of digging, so be prepared for that. If your yard is getting wrecked, then fill in any dug holes with flagstones. To dissuade your Sulcata from burrowing too much, provide them with a covered hide such as a dog kennel.
If you have seasons where the outdoor temperature will be too low for a Sulcata, then the best thing to do is create a heated space inside a shed or garage for your tortoise. This will keep them warm and safe whilst still giving them enough room.
If you need to house an adult Sulcata inside, you’ll need to dedicate an entire room to them. Raising Sulcata tortoise hatchlings and juveniles inside is a common practice. Hatchlings start out at around two inches long, so a 20-gallon tank should be the minimum.
Recommended basic products
There are some essential items needed when caring for a Sulcata tortoise. Most of these items apply mainly if you are keeping a juvenile Sulcata tortoise indoors.
As far as enclosures go, we’ve suggested a good enclosure for juveniles, but adult Sulcata tortoises are going to need a custom-built outdoor enclosure in order to thrive.
- Enclosure (Juveniles): Zoo Med Tortoise House
- UVB light/heat bulb: Zoo Med PowerSun
- UVB test cards: Reptizoo UV test cards
- Light fixture: Zoo Med Combo Deep Dome fixture
- Timer: Zoo Med Timer
- Thermometer: Exo Terra Thermometer
- Laser thermometer (For optional checking): Etekcity Lasergrip
- Water bowl: Large water bowl
Despite their large size Sulcata tortoises are relatively easy to clean up after, especially if you can discourage them from burrowing too much. For outdoor enclosures, spot clean them as often as possible. Adult Sulcata tortoises will not urinate too much.
Clean out any enclosure about once a week. If you have Sulcata tortoise hatchlings or juveniles, clean their tank or tortoise table thoroughly once per week.
The water bowl is where your Sulcata is likely to make the most mess. This is where they will probably pass waste, so the water receptacle should be cleaned every day.
If you’re keeping your Sulcata outside, then provide both dirt and grass in your yard. For any hides that you provide, hay is a good substrate. Just make sure that you’re not using chemical pesticides in your garden, as these can harm your tortoise.
One of the best substrates for a Sulcata tortoise, especially for juveniles, is mulch. Cypress mulch is a good pick. Mulch helps absorb any waste and is relatively cheap. You can also use peat moss.
Don’t allow your Sulcata tortoise to eat loose food directly off the substrate, as they may accidentally swallow small stones or other debris. Instead, offer food on a flat serving area such as a rock, tray, or dish.
Because they hail from desert habitats, Sulcata tortoises need high temperatures. Outside, they can tolerate heat as high as 100 degrees Fahrenheit. If this is the case, make sure to provide some shaded areas so that your tortoise can regulate its body temperature.
If you’re housing your Sulcata tortoise indoors, temperatures can safely range between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. If they’re indoors full-time, they will need a heat lamp and basking spot that reaches about 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
How do you keep your Sulcata tortoise warm at night?
If you usually keep your tortoise outside, there are a couple of ways that you can keep them warm at night. The first is to bring them indoors overnight, giving them their own room.
If you must keep them outside, you can either provide a form of heated hide in their main enclosure or dedicate a heated garage or shed to them. For the heated hide, you could use an outdoor ceramic heat lamp setup.
How cold is too cold for a Sulcata tortoise?
The outdoor temperature should never drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, or you’ll have to bring your tortoise indoors. If you have to keep your Sulcata outside in these conditions, you’ll need to provide a heat source overnight for their bedding area.
If you have to keep them outside, then you’ll need to make sure they get to the warm bedding area before they fall asleep. If your Sulcata tortoise nods off out in the open in cold temperatures, they could perish.
Sulcata tortoises like relatively low humidity levels as they come from dry regions. Keeping the humidity around 40% to 55% is crucial. This is one of the trickiest parts of Sulcata tortoise care.
If the humidity reaches too high a level, your Sulcata may develop breathing problems or may end up with a fungal infection. If you do need to top up the humidity, do this by misting their enclosure.
Like all reptiles, Sulcata tortoises depend on exposure to ultraviolet light to maintain good health. UVB light allows your tortoise to produce the correct levels of Vitamin D and allows them to get calcium. It also fires up their metabolisms.
If your Sulcata tortoise lives outside, they should get enough natural direct sunlight. Make sure that an area of their enclosure receives direct sunlight throughout the day to allow them to bask.
For Sulcata tortoises that live indoors, UV light must be provided by a dedicated light. A desert-strength UV light is crucial as it provides around 10% to 12% UVB. Fluorescent tubes are a good method as they ensure an even distribution of sunlight across the shell of your tortoise.
Any lamps that you provide for your Sulcata tortoise should be maintained on a 12-hour day/night cycle.
Whether housing them indoors or outdoors, there are a couple of accessories that you can provide to create an enriching Sulcata tortoise habitat.
To keep their claws filed down, some large flat rocks are ideal decorations. These can also provide a food area for them.
Some tortoise-safe plants are also good to provide as accessories. These will give your Sulcata some cover as well as something to nibble on. If your Sulcata is prone to digging, these plants may find themselves uprooted.
A list of plants that Sulcata tortoises can eat can be found here.
To provide a healthy Sulcata tortoise diet, the vast bulk of food should be made up of grasses and hay. These are the best foods for Sulcata tortoises and can be planted in their outdoor enclosure for grazing as well as provided loose.
For variety, add in a range of leafy greens such as collard greens, dandelion, and watercress. You can also provide succulents such as pads of prickly pear cactus. You can also offer commercial tortoise pellets and food in moderation.
Some greens like spinach are high in oxalates, which are small calcium crystals that can irritate your tortoise’s insides. It’s best to check our list of plants that Sulcata tortoises can eat.
You can also provide calcium and Vitamin D supplements, especially if your Sulcata tortoise lives indoors. Dust these over some vegetables no more than twice per week.
How many times a day do you feed Sulcata tortoises?
If you’re keeping them outside, your Sulcata tortoise will likely graze throughout the day. For fresh leafy greens, offer these every two to three days. You should feed loose grass and hay daily.
If you’re housing your Sulcata outside, then you should provide them with a water bowl. They will drink out of it, but it will mostly be used for defecating. These will often happen at the same time.
Usually Sulcata tortoises will drink from puddles that may accumulate in your yard after rain. They also appreciate muddy areas where they can wallow around to cool themselves down.
If you’re keeping your Sulcata indoors, a water bowl can be a pain as they can slosh it everywhere as well as fill it with waste. Soaking is a much more beneficial way to hydrate your tortoise indoors.
How often should you soak a Sulcata tortoise?
To soak your Sulcata, take them outside of their enclosure. Use warm water and soak them for between 15 and 30 minutes. Use shallow water so that your tortoise doesn’t drown.
This should be done once or twice each week for adults and about three times a week for juveniles and hatchlings. For these younger tortoises, soak them for no more than 15 minutes in each session.
Sulcata tortoise diet sheet
Below we’ve provided a summary of some of the kinds of foods that will be beneficial for your Sulcata tortoise. We’ve broken it down into three sections: staple foods, variety foods, and treats.
It’s important that you give your Sulcata tortoise a varied diet to help meet their nutritional needs. However, the variety foods and treats should only be supplements to the main diet. Here’s our Sulcata tortoise diet sheet:
Staple foods: Feed everyday
- Barley Grass: Good dietary staple, but don’t let your tortoise eat the grains or seeds
- Bermuda Grass: Another common grass good for grazing
- Broad-leaf Plantains: This weed is a great tortoise staple
- Buffalo Grass: North American prairie grass which is a good dietary grazing staple
- Chia: Young shoots are a firm favorite, but don’t let your tortoise eat the high-phosphorous seeds
- Chickweed: Another common weed that can be fed in moderate amounts
- Chicory: Feed the flowers and leaves, but not the roots
- Clover: This weed can be a moderate portion of your tortoises diet
- Dandelion: this weed is packed with Vitamin A and Calcium, but can be high in oxalic acid
- Flowering Maple: Flowers can be eaten and prove relatively popular with tortoises
- Grape Leaves: Provides a good source of Vitamin A
- Geranium: Hardy flowers that are popular with tortoises. Leaves can be eaten as well
- Hibiscus: Both the flowers and leaves can be eaten
- Hollyhock: Tall-growing plant popular with tortoises
- Kentucky Blue Grass: A common lawn grass that is great for your Sulcata
- Mallow: Weeds that grow throughout the year, a good staple food
- Oatgrass: Good dietary staple, but don’t let your tortoise eat the grains or seeds
- Orchard Grass: Good dietary staple, but don’t let your tortoise eat the grains or seeds
- Rye Grass: Good dietary staple, but don’t let your tortoise eat the grains or seeds
- Sowthistle: These weeds are a good staple food, but only use from low-nitrogen soil
- Timothy Grass: Good dietary staple, but remove sharp seed heads. Dried Timothy Grass is a good source of hay bedding/food
- Wheat Grass: Packed with Vitamin A
Variety foods: Offer a couple of these in small quantities with staple foods
- Alfalfa sprouts: Provides Vitamin A, Calcium, and nutritional plant proteins
- Arugula: Provides Vitamin A and is a readily-available plant protein
- Bok Choi or Pak Choi: Contain a lot of Vitamin A
- Collard Greens: Packed with Vitamin A, Calcium, and plant proteins
- Mustard Greens: Lots of Vitamin A
- Prickly Pear Cactus: Provides Calcium, but excessive consumption may produce laxative effects
- Turnip Greens/tops: Provides Vitamin A, Calcium, and nutritional plant proteins
- Treats: Should be fed very sparingly, and fruits should only be offered if your tortoise likes them. If your tortoise experiences diarrhea or vomiting after eating fruit, do not offer them anymore, period.
- Bananas: High in potassium and sugars, so keep to a minimum
- Blackberries: High in sugar, so keep to a minimum. May also cause irritation
- Cucumber: Can be a refreshing treat on hot days, but contains virtually no nutrients
- Grapes: Can be high in sugar, so feed sparingly
- Melon: Again, the sugar levels can be too high for most tortoises
- Raspberries: High in sugar, so keep to a minimum. May also cause irritation
Temperament and handling
Are Sulcata tortoises good pets?
If you are prepared for their enormous size, Sulcata tortoises make great pets. They are very curious, intelligent creatures with wonderful personalities.
Over time, their docile temperaments can result in them recognizing and approaching you, and some individuals can even learn to respond to their name.
However, many Sulcata tortoises that are sold by chain pet stores are not accompanied by the proper information for prospective owners. Because of their deceptively small size as hatchlings, many people assume that Sulcata tortoises will stay small.
This is simply not true, and often results in Sulcata tortoises being put up for adoption or dumped at rescue centers because their owners did not realize the commitment and space needed to keep these gentle giants.
Sulcata tortoises also do not like handling, so are much better simply being observed. Do not handle your Sulcata unless it is absolutely necessary, otherwise you may cause them a lot of stress.
But if you have the space, time, and patience to commit to these amazing creatures, Sulcata tortoises can become incredibly rewarding companions.
Are Sulcata tortoises easy to keep?
This isn’t to say that Sulcata tortoises are easy to keep. They have some very specific requirements that don’t really make them suitable for beginners or any who are unprepared for their adult size.
Sulcata tortoises rely on you to provide a lot of space for them, which many pet owners aren’t equipped for.
These terrestrial titans also need the correct humidity and temperature levels to be maintained otherwise they will start to suffer health problems.
They also need very strong enclosures that can handle their bulk. Because of their sheer size, Sulcata tortoises can act as battering rams for flimsy enclosures or fencing. You’ll need to make sure that their enclosure can withstand their size.
Signs of good health
Because of the huge amount of misinformation about Sulcata tortoises, buying from a reputable, knowledgeable breeder is even more essential than it is for other species.
The eyes of your prospective tortoise should be alert and clear. A healthy Sulcata tortoise shell should be smooth and there shouldn’t be any signs of deformities or flaking.
A healthy Sulcata has an extremely healthy appetite. Before choosing an animal, ask to see it eat. A reluctance to chow down can be indicative of serious health problems.
Like the majority of tortoises, Sulcata tortoises can be prone to various ailments and health problems.
One of the most common is Metabolic Bone Disease. This condition occurs when your tortoise is not getting enough calcium, either through UV exposure or through their diet.
It is a serious condition and can cause permanent damage in the form of shell deformities and weak bone structure.
This can result in a Sulcata tortoise with pyramiding on their shell, which is where their scutes begin to protrude upwards like a pyramid.
Breathing problems and shell rot are also common ailments that can afflict Sulcata tortoises. These conditions usually come about because humidity or temperature levels are too high.
Breathing problems can be diagnosed if your tortoise is wheezing or seems lethargic. Shell rot will commonly manifest as flaking on the shell and usually happens because of fungal infections.
Sulcata tortoise hibernation
When it comes to a Sulcata tortoise, hibernation is not something to be encouraged. Sulcata tortoises do not hibernate naturally unlike other species because they usually live in warm, dry environments. In these regions, the temperature does not get low enough for them to need to hibernate.
This is why Sulcata tortoises must be protected from cold temperatures. If the outdoor temperature dips below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, bring your tortoise inside or get them into a warm bedding area.
Hibernation could potentially be deadly for a Sulcata tortoise, so avoid it at all costs. The common signs of the start of hibernation, including lethargy and refusal to eat, are also common symptoms for serious health conditions.
Sulcata tortoise rescue
Sulcata tortoises are often assumed to be manageable reptiles due to their small size as babies. These cute reptiles are popular with many novice keepers. However, they will quickly grow beyond this small size and are quite often given up by owners who weren’t equipped to handle them.
Because pet stores and breeders can make a lot of quick money from these cute young tortoises, many Sulcata tortoises are abandoned or given up when it becomes clear that someone got more than they bargained for.
This is especially true for families with young children who thought they were getting a permanently small species. The rapid rate of abandonment has created a crisis for rescue centers, and in some areas these places may be overwhelmed with abandoned tortoises.
To help curb this problem, consider adopting from a Sulcata tortoise rescue. You’ll probably find a adult Sulcata at an adoption center, which will make it clear exactly how big a space you need to house them.
Sulcata tortoises also live for a very long time, and can end up in rescue centers when they outlive their owners. Again, adopting an adult Sulcata can provide them with a good home where their needs will be met properly.
Video about the Sulcata tortoise
Clint from Clint’s reptiles gives a complete walkthrough about owning rescue Sulcata tortoises. Check it out to learn even more about them.
Sulcata tortoise hatchling care
Sulcata tortoise hatchlings should be reared inside for the first few years of their lives. They can grow rapidly when young, so be prepared to upgrade their enclosures a couple of times.
To start with, a 20-gallon tank will do as a minimum, as babies will be a maximum of two inches long. A wooden vivarium will help to retain heat. As the hatchlings become juveniles, a tortoise table is a good step up.
Hatchlings need much higher humidity levels than adult Sulcata tortoises, and should also have a humid hide in their enclosures. Around 80% will help promote good healthy growth.
Temperatures need to be high as well, at least as high as adult Sulcata tortoises. An ambient temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit should be the minimum for Sulcata tortoise hatchlings. Provide a basking spot at around 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
When it comes to soaking, do this about three times a week for no more than 15 minutes in each session.
Sulcata tortoise hatchlings should have a daily diet mainly comprised of dark leafy greens, chopped up into manageable pieces. Dust food with calcium supplements one or two times a week.
Frequently Asked Questions about Sulcata tortoises
How fast do Sulcata tortoises grow?
Considering that Sulcata tortoise hatchlings start out at under two inches long, Sulcata tortoises can grow remarkably fast considering their eventual adult size and long lifespans.
Within a couple of years of hatching, a juvenile Sulcata tortoise will reach around 6 to 10 inches. Generally, a Sulcata will reach their full adulthood size in around 15 to 20 years.
However, growth rates can vary rapidly between Sulcata tortoise individuals. Two ten inch Sulcata specimens could be either three years old or ten years old.
Why is it called a spurred tortoise?
The Sulcata tortoise is sometimes known as the African spur thigh tortoise or spurred tortoise because of its hard, bony protrusions on its hind limbs. These scales overlap and resemble cones.
Can a Sulcata tortoise swim?
Unlike turtles, tortoises such as Sulcata tortoises are not built for swimming. Additionally, the heavy weight of a Sulcata could prove dangerous if it is forced to try and swim.
This is why you should only use shallow water when soaking your Sulcata tortoise or filling their water bowl. If you use too much water, there is a risk that they could drown.
Do Sulcata tortoises get lonely?
In their wild habitat Sulcata tortoises often live solitary lives. They usually only see other Sulcatas during the breeding season.
Keeping a single Sulcata tortoise will not make them lonely, especially if they come to recognize you as their keeper. You’ll probably only have space to accommodate one anyway!
How much does a baby Sulcata tortoise cost?
Baby Sulcata tortoises prices will usually start from around $200 from reputable online sellers such as CBReptile and Tortoise Town.
However, some pet stores will sell babies for around $70. This is not recommended as the tortoises may not have been cared for properly.
Some morphs and subspecies, like the Albino Sulcata tortoise, are considerably more expensive even as babies. You’ll be lucky to get a captive-bred Albino baby for under $2000.
Is it illegal to own a Sulcata tortoise?
It is not illegal to own a Sulcata tortoise, and they are often sold as hatchlings or juveniles in pet store chains. Some states may require you to have a permit for breeding these tortoises, but generally you won’t need a license.
How do you tell if a Sulcata tortoise is a boy or girl?
Adult Sulcata tortoises can be tricky to distinguish between males and females. Males are almost always much bigger and heavier than females. Males will also have longer and wider tails.
Males also have concave plastrons, whereas females don’t. With younger Sulcata tortoises, you can only really tell their sex when they become juveniles or after about three or four years.
Another distinguishing feature between males and females is their anal notches. Females have much more rounded anal notches for laying eggs.
Sulcata tortoises are often sold with misleading information about their adult size, which has created something of a crisis for rescue centers.
However, if you’re prepared for their giant size as adults and have the space to house them, then Sulcata tortoises can be wonderful pets.
These gentle giants live for close to a century at least, but will learn to recognize you as their keeper. They will come up to you and interact with you, although handling should only be done when necessary.
For intermediate to advanced keepers, Sulcata tortoises are some of the most impressive specimens available.
If you enjoyed our guide to Sulcata tortoise care, or if you have one of these incredible animals, please comment below!