Lee Richardson Zoo

African Spurred Tortoise

Order  Testudines - turtles and tortoises
Family  Testudinidae - tortoises

Scientific Name:  Geochelone sulcata


Description:  The African spurred tortoise is the largest tortoise on the African continent and the third largest in the world.  It has a broad brownish or yellowish carapace with strongly marked growth rings on the scutes.  The carapace scales on adult tortoises will be especially pronounced and raised.  They have well defined spurs on the back legs and a very thick scales or skin which is colored much like the shell.  Can reach 200 pounds and 36 inches in length.


Home Range:  Native to the southern Sahara Desert, Africa.


Habitat Type:  Warm desert climate where the temperature rarely drops below 60 to 65 degrees.  Spends 85% of its time in a burrow if there is food nearby.  Otherwise it may spend large amounts of time on the move trying to find food.


Reproduction:   Mating may take part any time from June to March but most often occurs right after the fall rainy season.  A clutch of 15-30 or more eggs are laid in a ground cavity excavated by the female.  After an 8 month incubation, the 1.5-2 inch hatchlings dig their way out of the nest.  They grow quickly, reaching their full size in 15-20 years.  Soon after hatching the males begin ramming each other in a competitive fashion to prepare for the battles to win a mate.  They use a projection which grows from the front of the plastron (lower shell) to clash with each other. 


Diet in the Wild:   Grasses and leaves with occasional fruit.


Diet in the Zoo:  Diet consists of softened rabbit pellets, fruit and vegetable pieces mixed in.


General Information:  The African spurred tortoise can dig burrows 20 or more feet deep and can be quite destructive in their digging.  As they live in a warm climate, they do not hibernate like many turtles and tortoises.  When temperatures exceed 104° F, the tortoise is in danger of over-heating because its bulky body and thick bony shell that does not dissipate heat well.  In order to counteract this, they will produce thick saliva and smear it on their forearms to help cool themselves.  If flipped on to their back and unable to right themselves, they may die of hyperthermia (if it is in the hottest part of the day), choking/drowning on their own vomit from panic, or suffocation from the weight of their own body on their lungs. 
Some African cultures regard the spurred tortoise as a mediator between men and God.  In Senegal, these tortoises are a sign of virtue, happiness, fertility, and longevity.  As a pet, they are difficult to care for.  All too many inexperienced owners often kill a tortoise within the first few years of life.  This is often due to incorrect diets.  A very specific diet with the correct protein to plant material ratio is needed to insure healthy development.  Lack of a proper diet results in shell deformity, reduced body size, and poor health.


Conservation Status:  The African spurred tortoise is rapidly disappearing in many parts of Africa due to overgrazing and desertification of their areas.  They are listed on CITES, Appendix II and the IUCN Red List as Vulnerable.  The pet trade once had an effect on their numbers, but due to tighter controls, the pet trade no longer presents a threat.


Predators:  In the U.S. and Europe, captive juvenile tortoises are sometimes preyed upon by raccoons and opossums.  Dogs and cats are known to hassle these tortoises and even use them as a chew toy.  Natural predators do not exist, with the exception of humans.



Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians.  Harold G. Cogger and Richard G. Zweifel.  Academic Press, San Diego, California.  pg. 122.


Grizimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia Vol. 7.  Michael Hutchins et. al.  Farmington Hills, Michigan: Gale Group.  pg. 143-149.


Melissa Kaplan’s Herps Care Collection website


Tortoise Trust website


The University of Michigan Museum of Zoology Animal Diversity Web