The sulcata tortoise, also known as the African spurred tortoise (Geochelone Sulcata) is one of the largest species of tortoises on the earth. They can grow to over 200 pounds and measure over 30 inches from nose to tail.
These large tortoises are exclusively herbivores, subsisting largely on grasses and hay. In the wild, sulcata tortoises graze on African grasses, which make up over 90% of their diet. Sulcata tortoise pets still need to have a constant supply of hay or straw, with a few vegetables mixed in.
If you’ve ever wondered what these shelled, land giants eat, keep reading as we go over everything sulcata tortoises eat in the wild, as a pet, and when they are tiny babies.
What Do Wild Sulcata Tortoises Eat?
The sulcata tortoise is a native of one of the harshest areas in Africa. They live in northern areas of the Sahara Desert.
Several countries across the expanse of Africa are home to the sulcata tortoise. They can be found in Chad, Sudan, Nigeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Mali, and more.
These hot, arid regions see very little rainfall each year, so sulcata tortoises have to get the majority of their water needs from their food. They do so by eating grasses, cacti, succulents, flowers, and other vegetation.
In captivity, the African spurred tortoise rarely drinks water. Even when exposed to water, they show very little interest in the liquid. This is because they hardly see much rain or pockets of water, and they get enough hydration from their diet.
Sulcata tortoises in the wild spend much of their day eating and grazing on tough, fibrous grasses. Since it’s usually readily available, these grasses make up anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of their diet.
They will also eat many types of cacti. When they are available, the sulcata tortoise in the wild will also eat flowers and fruits.
What Do Sulcata Tortoises Eat In Captivity?
In captivity, sulcatas are able to get a more varied diet, but they still need to have foods presented to them very similar to what they would find in the wild. Their captive diet needs to focus mostly on fibrous grasses or hay with some nutritious greens added in.
Being herbivores, sulcata tortoises can eat a wide variety of grasses, veggies, fruits, and flowers. Some owners have said their sulcatas are “eating machines.” Making sure your tortoise has a varied diet is one of the best ways to ensure they are getting all the nutrients they need.
Do Sulcata Tortoises Eat Hay?
Sulcata tortoises need a constant supply of hay and grasses in which to graze and munch. During the day, many hours will be spent eating grasses and hay.
You can let your tortoise graze on the grass in your yard as long as you don’t use pesticides and fertilizers. These chemicals get into and on the plants and can cause a lot of health problems for them when ingested.
Since grasses and hay should make up anywhere from 70 to 90% of their diet, here is a list of approved grasses and hay your African Spurred tortoise can graze on:
- Alfalfa—Alfalfa is readily available in most areas. It’s fed to livestock because of the high protein content that helps to pack on the pounds. For this reason, alfalfa should be fed to sulcatas when mixed with other grass or hay.
Alfalfa also has a lower fiber content than most other hays and grasses, but it’s much more palatable to most grazing animals. Feeding your sulcata too much alfalfa can lead to shell distortion because of the high protein content.
When using alfalfa hay to feed your tortoise, be sure it only consists of 50 percent or less of the total amount of grazing hay.
- Ryegrass—This grass can be annual or perennial growing, and is often found in residential yards. The annual variety is especially popular as a quick ground cover while waiting for perennial grasses to cover in.
Ryegrass, like alfalfa, is very high in protein, easily digestible, and attractive to grass-eating tortoises. If you’re using ryegrass as grazing fodder, it should be mixed with other hays. This helps to lower the high percentage of protein and increase the amount of fiber.
- Bermuda grass—Bermuda grass is a low-growing, heat-tolerant, spreading lawn grass that is often found among the southern states. The blades are dark green, wide, and have a coarse texture.
It may be hard to find Bermuda bales for purchase, but if it’s available in your yard you can mow, then offer the collected clippings to your sulcata tortoise, or let them graze in your yard.
Be sure to always supervise your tortoise while letting it graze if you don’t have a sturdy fence. You’d be surprised how quickly, and how far a determined tortoise can wander.
When it comes to nutrition, Bermuda grass can range widely in protein content, but usually averages out to around 11%. Much lower than alfalfa and ryegrass.
- Oat grass—This is a great grass/hay to mix with alfalfa and ryegrass as oat grass is very low in protein and other nutrients. It doesn’t contain much calcium either but is very high in fiber.
Oat grass is dry and crunchy which some tortoises don’t care for. If your tortoise doesn’t like crunchy hay, you can soak it in water for a little while to soften it, and make it more palatable.
Oat grass shouldn’t be fed to your tortoise in large quantities because it can be high in nitrates.
- Wheatgrass—Is often found commercially in growing flats. It’s great as a growing, grazing grass for your sulcata. Most of them relish eating this soft grass and it can be fed to them daily.
If you can find wheatgrass straw, make sure it doesn’t have the wheat kernels in it, as this part of the plant is very high in protein and gluten. In high quantities, these are not healthy for your tortoise.
- Kentucky bluegrass—Also known as meadow grass, is often utilized as a lawn and turf grass. It is a great grazing grass for sulcata tortoises and suitable for daily feeding and grazing.
When you can find it sold and marketed as meadow hay, it has a mixture of several types of grasses. These can include fescue, ryegrass, and more. The protein content can vary widely, but it shouldn’t be too high to feed to your tortoise daily.
- Fescue—This can be a palatable grass for your tortoise. It grows well and can get quite tall when left to grow without trimming it.
It has a high protein content, but not as high as alfalfa. Fescue shouldn’t be the only grass/hay fed to your sulcata tortoise for long periods. Variety is the best way to give your pet all the essential nutrients it needs.
- Timothy hay—Is often fed to pets such as rabbits and guinea pigs. It contains a lot of fiber, calcium, and phosphorus, and has a moderate amount of protein.
When purchasing timothy hay, you may notice either the first, second, or third cut. This is signified when the hay was cut down and processed during its growing season.
The first cut is the earliest in the season and contains less protein and more fiber. It also contains more woody stems that tortoises may not like.
Second cut Timothy hay has fewer woody stems, so it usually contains more protein and less fiber, but may be more palatable for your tortoise. The second and third cuts will usually be more expensive.
Third cut is the last cut in the season and is the leafiest Timothy hay of the three. It also contains more protein and the least amount of fiber of the three. If using the third cut hay, you should mix it with more fibrous types of hay or grass.
- Orchard grass—This is a soft, green grass or hay with about the same amount of phosphorus and calcium as Timothy hay. The tender shoots are prized and palatable by sulcata tortoises.
- Clover—All types of clover are great for your tortoise to graze on. They enjoy munching on the flowers just as much as the leaves.
If your yard has natural patches of clover, go ahead and let them explore and eat it. As long as your yard is free of pesticides and fertilizers, it’s perfectly fine to let your sulcata munch on it.
What Vegetables Can Sulcata Tortoises Eat?
While you are feeding your sulcata tortoise plenty of grass or hay, about 10 to 15 percent of its diet should be greens and vegetables.
When feeding vegetables, it’s a good habit to lightly dust them with supplemental calcium powder. Be sure not to add too much or your tortoise may not want to eat them. A lot of calcium powder can create a bitter taste that will prevent your tortoise from eating their food.
Another option is to offer Emours Natural Cuttlefish Bone for Reptiles. This is made of fish bone and is a natural source of calcium. Be sure to keep any metal parts away from your tortoise and it will consume the calcium when it needs it.
The following greens can be offered to your sulcata tortoise, but they should be limited as they typically are high in oxalates. Oxalates block the absorption of calcium and in high quantities can lead to metabolic bone disease.
They can also cause problems such as kidney stones. Limit these greens when feeding your sulcata to about once per week:
- Collard greens
- Beet greens
Cabbage is a leafy green as well and sulcata tortoises can eat green and red cabbage, they shouldn’t eat it all the time.
Cabbage is high in goitrogens, which in high doses can affect the thyroid and liver. It can also cause kidney stones, so while you can offer cabbage, do so only on occasion.
Green leafy vegetables that are great for African spurred tortoises include:
- Bok choy
- Mustard greens
- Turnip greens
- Dandelion greens
- Grape leaves
- Red leaf lettuce
- Spring Mix lettuces
Sulcata Tortoises Love Prickly Pear Cactus
Prickly pear cactus is becoming increasingly popular and is often found in grocery stores now. There are spineless varieties that are great for you—so you don’t poke yourself—and your tortoise.
In the wild, sulcata tortoises will eat cacti, spines, and all, but the spines can get caught in their mouth or throat. For safety at home, it’s best to remove any sharp needles if there are any before feeding your pet.
Prickly pear pads are a great treat for your sulcata tortoise, as are prickly pear fruits. Just limit the fruits to the occasional treat, as they are high in sugar.
Can Sulcata Tortoises Eat Broccoli?
There’s a lot of debate out there about whether a sulcata tortoise can eat broccoli or not. Some say they feed it to them all the time with no problems, while others say it’s bad for them.
I like to look at it this way, many people can play out in thunderstorms and never get struck by lightning, but occasionally someone is going to get lit up. I’d rather not chance it. I know broccoli isn’t like a million-volt lightning strike, but it is high in goitrogens which we already discussed can cause health problems.
If you truly want to feed your tortoise broccoli, we can’t stop you. I’m sure small amounts of broccoli on occasion won’t harm them, but in my opinion, there are many better safer choices.
Can Sulcata Tortoises Eat Spinach?
Spinach is high in oxalates which bind to calcium and prevent it from being absorbed. It’s another vegetable that shouldn’t be fed to your tortoise.
In small amounts, it won’t hurt them, but still, reptiles need large amounts of calcium, why feed them something that will block the absorption of the essential nutrient?
In my opinion, avoid spinach, and stick to something safer such as kale, watercress, or dandelion greens.
Can Sulcata Tortoises Eat Carrots?
Carrots are acceptable vegetables for your sulcata to eat. You can grate them and throw them into their veggie mixes on occasion or feed them whole. Just be careful not to feed them the green tops very often.
Sulcata tortoises can eat carrot tops on occasion, but they shouldn’t be a staple food. If you feed your tortoise a whole carrot—root and leafy top—about two times a month, to once a week, that is perfectly fine.
Safe Vegetables For Sulcata Tortoises
Vegetables and leafy greens should only be fed to your sulcata tortoise about once a week. If you want to feed them veggies every day, just keep them limited to about 10% of their diet each day.
The following is a list of safe vegetables you can feed your tortoise. Add some of these veggies with the greens listed above, but keep on feeding them hay and grass mostly:
- Bell peppers
- Sweet Potato
- Yellow or crookneck squash
- Winter squash (seeds removed)
What Fruits Can Sulcata Tortoises Eat?
In the wild, African Spurred tortoises will not come across ripe fruits very often. The desert habitat isn’t conducive to masses of fruits.
Because of this and how they have adapted, sulcata tortoises aren’t able to break down sugars very well. Fruits should only be offered very rarely as special treats.
Sulcatas love fruits, just like most of us love junk food. It’s not good for us, but it sure does taste good.
When feeding your tortoise fruits, do so only about once a month and only offer a very small amount. A few chunks of melon, a strawberry or two, or an apple will suffice.
Here is a list of approved fruits you can feed your sulcata tortoise:
- Cantaloupe–rind on
- Bananas–peel and all
- Peaches–pit removed
- Apricots–pit removed
- Cherries–pitted, and fresh, not canned or jarred
- Pineapple–sparingly as they are very high in sugar
Can Sulcatas Eat Grapes?
Some animals aren’t supposed to eat grapes. Dogs should not eat grapes because they can be toxic to Rover. But sulcata tortoises have no such problem.
Your sulcata tortoise can eat grapes as long as you don’t feed them to your tortoise frequently or in large quantities.
What Do Baby Sulcata Tortoises Eat?
In the wild, baby sulcatas will eat much of the same things adults will eat. They tend to eat softer, more succulent plants if they are available, but they eat grasses, cacti, flowers, and fruits as well.
Baby sulcata pets may not eat very much dried hay, opting to eat softer, more delicate green grass and vegetables. Baby sulcata tortoise jaws aren’t strong enough to bite through woodier, dry stems of hay, unlike adults. But they still need a diet high in fiber and calcium.
You can start off with mixed greens, spring mix greens, a mixture of collard greens, turnip greens, and kale while adding in fresh-cut grass or hydrated hay.
It’s good to start introducing your baby sulcata to the outdoors to graze on grasses, clover, and other growing greens so they get used to eating hay. You can also try soaking dried hay and grasses to make them softer and more palatable.
Another way to get your baby tortoise to start eating grass and hay is to mix chopped-up bits with their favorite foods and slowly reduce the vegetables while increasing the hay. Eventually, they will take to it and start eating more hay.
By the time they reach three to four years of age, the sulcata tortoise should be eating most grass and hay.
If you’re having a hard time getting your baby or juvenile tortoise to eat hay, another option is to use a small amount of commercial tortoise pellets. These are often made of ground hay and grasses.
Soften the pellets with some water to make them more palatable and mix them with their normal food mix.
What Vegetables Can Baby Sulcata Tortoises Eat?
Baby tortoises can eat pretty much the same things adults can eat, only some vegetables might be too hard for them. Parsnips, sweet potatoes, and carrots should be shredded or grated so baby jaws can bite through the hard vegetables.
The following is a list of safe vegetables a baby sulcata tortoise can eat:
- Collard greens
- Romaine lettuce
- Turnip greens
- Grape leaf
- Sweet potato
- Bell pepper
- Mesclun lettuce
- Red leaf lettuce
- Spring mix lettuce
Grass And Hay Baby Sulcata Tortoises Can Eat
When you’re able to get your baby to start eating hay and grasses, the below list includes safe options:
- Couch grass
- Alfalfa hay
- Cat grass
- Bermuda grass
- Oat grass
- Kentucky bluegrass
- Barley hay
- Timothy hay (third cut)
- Meadow hay
Be careful feeding baby sulcatas hay and grasses that contain high levels of protein. While they are growing, too much protein can cause shell distortion and kidney problems. Good starter hay could include meadow hay, fescue, cat grass, and Bermuda grass.
Fruits Baby Sulcata Tortoises Can Eat
Baby sulcata tortoises can consume some fruits in their diet. Be sure to keep these limited to the occasional treat and only feed a small amount about once a month.
The following can be fed to baby sulcatas:
- Pears (no seeds)
- Apples (no seeds)
- Melons (no rinds)
- Apricot (no pits)
- Plums (no pits)
What Do Sulcata Tortoises Eat At The Zoo?
In zoos, sulcata tortoises are fed a diet that very closely mimics what they would find in their natural habitat. They get a mix of greens, hay and grasses, and tortoise diet pellets.
What If My Sulcata Tortoise Eats Weeds?
While out grazing, your tortoise is likely to eat weeds, flowers, or other greens aside from grass and hay. Is it safe to let them continue eating these plants?
Most tortoises are instinctively able to distinguish what is safe for them to eat and what is not. Nevertheless, in case you are wondering or worried about what your pet has or is eating, here is a list of flowers, plants, and weeds that are safe for your sulcata tortoise to eat:
- Aloe vera
- Boston fern
- Dandelion (Stem, leaf, flower)
- Greater plantain
- Milk thistle
- Prickly sow thistle
- Red clover (Stem, leaf, flower)
- Red dead nettle
- Smooth sow thistle (Stem, leaf, flower)
- Smooth hawks bread (Leaf, flower)
- White clover (Stem, leaf, flower)
- White dead nettle
- Ribgrass plantain
- African violet
- Air plant
- Cat grass
- Couch grass
- Creeping thistle
- Friendship plant
- Ground elder
- Hibiscus (Rose of Sharon)
- Ice plants
- Kidney weed
- Lady’s purse
- Mulberry (leaves and berries)
- Prayer plant
- Red valerian
- Scotch thistle
- Spear thistle
- Spider plant
- Water hyacinth
Plants That Can Be Toxic To Your Tortoises
Tortoises can eat some plants that can be toxic to mammals, but that doesn’t mean they can eat any plant and not come to harm. There are still plenty of plants that can be toxic to your sulcata.
The following list is not an extensive list of everything that is toxic to your tortoise, but they are some of the most popular plants in peoples’ gardens and are sold in many nurseries. Don’t let your tortoise eat any of these plants:
- Angel’s trumpet
- Balsam pear, bitter melon
- Belladonna, nightshade
- Bird of paradise
- Black locust
- Calla lily
- Coral plant
- Cycad or sago cycas
- Elephant’s ears or taro
- Four o’clock
- Ivy (Boston, English, and some others)
- Mock orange
- Morning glory
- Poison hemlock
- Poison ivy
- Poison oak
- Poison sumac
- Sweet pea
- Virginia creeper
Other Foods To Avoid Feeding Your Sulcata Tortoise
Sulcatas are herbivores and should not be fed animal sources of protein. This includes insects, worms, pinkies, and fish. These items are too high in protein for your tortoise to digest and process.
If your tortoise consumes the occasional insect while grazing, the bug won’t harm it. I have even heard of an African Spurred tortoise eating a baby bird that fell out of the nest. Yes, my eyes did the same thing.
Stay away from grains and legumes such as beans, corn, oats, wheat, and rice. Citrus fruits shouldn’t be fed to your tortoise either. These are very acidic, besides, most animals don’t care for citrus fruits.
If you have any questions about something your tortoise has eaten that is not in this article, be sure to call your vet for advice.
For more in-depth information about the sulcata tortoise, check out our article about them here.
That’s All Folks
There you have it. Everything that sulcata tortoises can eat to remain healthy and have a long, happy life. Since it’s what they would eat in the wild, grasses and hay should be the biggest part of their diet.
Green, leafy veggies can be added as well as other hard vegetables such as sweet potatoes, carrots, and squash mixed in. Fruits such as bananas, berries, or melons can be offered as treats on occasion.
Since their bodies can’t process all the sugars, fruits should only be offered about once a month and in moderation.
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