Sulcata Tortoise: Feeding, Habitat, Growth, and More

Sulcata Tortoise: Feeding, Habitat, Growth, and More


The sulcata tortoise is a reptile that belongs to the family nucleus of the Testudinidae and the genus Centrochelys, being the only one of its kind; It is one of the species of large turtles, and they inhabit areas with high temperatures on the African continent. Learn more about this specimen by reading this article.

What is the sulcata tortoise?

The African spurred tortoise is a reptile of the genus Centrochelys, the largest in its land of origin, Africa. With an aggressive temperament, impressive size, and considerable strength, this reptile usually has a long life and can live in its original habitat or in captivity with the corresponding attention.

Sulcata Tortoise: Feeding, Habitat, Growth, and More
Sulcata Tortoise: Feeding, Habitat, Growth, and More

Scientific name

Centrochelys sulcata is the scientific name of the well-known sulcata tortoise, established by John Frederick Miller in 1779, of English origin, born in 1759. He was a specialist in ornithology (specialist in birds) and a prominent illustrator in botanical subjects.


It derives from the Greek term geo (land) and chelone (tortoise). The name sulcata derives from the Latin sulcus (groove, wrinkle); this term describes the different shapes that its shell has.

Characteristics of the sulcata tortoise

This particular species has characteristics that differentiate it from any other species native to Africa:

  • The average weight of up to thirty-nine kilograms is recorded in females and fifty kilograms in males; however, there are records of weights that exceed one hundred kilograms.
  • The length of its shell or carapace is up to eighty centimeters.
  • It has a fairly strong and robust beak in the frontal area, with which it pushes and knocks things down in its path.
  • The carapace is light brown in color and usually has stronger or darker shades on its plates’ margins.
  • Its skin is resistant and light brown in color and has thick scales that protect the legs and spurs in the femoral region; from this comes its common name.
  • In this species, the males are larger, the plastron (ventral part of the carapace) is concave, and the tail is longer, thicker, and larger.
  • They do not usually hibernate, but they practice estivation, which consists of staying underground for long periods (months) in order to stay hydrated and withstand times of drought and excessive heat since their burrows are cooler and wetter. During this stage, they do not sleep like others but naturally reduce their blood pressure and respiratory rate, consuming less oxygen.

Time of life

The sulcata tortoise is similar to other reptiles, and it has an average life span between fifty and eighty years; however, it is estimated that they can reach up to one hundred and fifty years. It is stated that tortoises are the longest living species currently on our planet, which is why we must consider whether it is the type of animal we want to have as a pet, taking into account that it can live much longer than its own owner.

These species, however, do not usually reach these ages, either because in captivity they do not receive the necessary and correct attention or because of the loss of their habitats in the wild, the attack of predators, or the diseases that afflict them.

Habitat and distribution

These huge species are found in the wild in the extreme south of the Sahara, on the African continent, being observed in Ethiopia, Chad, Mauritania, Mali, Republic of the Niger, Senegal, and North Sudan. Their habitats include some very arid environments, such as the desert with its high temperatures, scrublands, savannas, and acacia forests. However, it is common for it to be bred in captivity, for which it also requires nurseries with a lot of space and warm temperatures.

Sulcata Tortoise: Feeding, Habitat, Growth, and More
Sulcata Tortoise: Feeding, Habitat, Growth, and More

Even though its habitat spans the entire African continent, living in arid lands, the sulcata tortoise often escapes extreme temperatures and periods of intense drought. They do this by digging long burrows in the ground.

These burrows can be about two feet deep and extend up to three meters or more underground. These shelters allow them to protect themselves from excessive heat and cold since, as has been well explained, they do not tolerate extreme temperatures, whether high or low.


The Centrochelys Sulcata species’ diet generally consists of plants of various types, such as succulent, aromatic plants, herbs, and discolored leaves.

They also require calcium and mineral salts for their large shell to maintain and develop in a healthy way, which is why it nibbles on bones and animal excrement.

Sulcata Tortoise: Feeding, Habitat, Growth, and More
Sulcata Tortoise: Feeding, Habitat, Growth, and More

In their habitat of origin, the plants that are part of the diet of the sulcata tortoise are:

  • Dactyloctenium aegyptium or Egyptian grass
  • Eleusine indica or bitter grass
  • Eragrostis tenella or poa senegalensis
  • Cassia obtusifolia or fedegosa
  • Commelina benghalensis or Commelina
  • Portulaca oleracea or purslane

In cases where the species approaches populated areas when approaching towns, the Barbary fig, nopal, or prickly pear is an appetizing food for the sulcata tortoise. However, it should be noted that the Centrochelys sulcata is very used to periods of prolonged fasting underground, alternating stages of abundance and hunger.

When the sulcata tortoise is bred in captivity, its growth is quite rapid, and such periods of prolonged famine are not common. Your diet should be high in fiber, which is essential, so dry hay should be available at meals. Clover, alfalfa, endive, radish leaves, banana weeds, bristle thistle, etc., can also be offered.

It also has a habit of consuming sand, gravel, and tiny pebbles found in the ground to acquire additional calcium and mineral salts, in addition to helping it process and crush the plant matter that it needs to digest and that is in the stomach.


Sulcata tortoise specimens grow excessively. In five years, they reach up to twenty-three kilos, and when fully developed, they exhibit shells of up to eighty-five centimeters in length and weights greater than one hundred kilograms. It is one of the largest tortoises on the planet. It is important to take into account that they have a fairly rapid growth process, especially when it is in a development period.

Sulcata Tortoise: Feeding, Habitat, Growth, and More
Sulcata Tortoise: Feeding, Habitat, Growth, and More


The sulcata tortoise generally reaches sexual maturity at five years of age, presenting a weight that ranges between ten and eighteen kilograms, in addition to a carapace of about thirty-five centimeters in length.

This stage frequently occurs after the rains, between September and November; however, it can start from June, extending until March.

They tend to be aggressive in temperament at this stage, and it is much more noticeable in males, who beat and knockdown others for a female in heat, causing injuries. The males generally follow the females and beat the shell until it is ready to copulate; they are also usually very vocal and produce loud sounds during copulation.

Sulcata Tortoise: Feeding, Habitat, Growth, and More
Sulcata Tortoise: Feeding, Habitat, Growth, and More

The eggs develop inside the female, and this causes a decrease in her appetite. She wanders in search of a place that seems ideal to make the nest and then proceeds to excavate a hole about two feet in diameter and four to six inches deep.

The number of eggs varies between fifteen and twenty, round, with a white and fragile shell. The incubation temperature must be between 28 and 30 degrees Celsius, for a period of time that goes between eighty-five days and one hundred seventy, and then hatch.

The young at birth are very small, with a carapace that measures less than five centimeters in length, weights of almost twenty-five grams, and shades of yellow and brown.

Sulcata tortoise in captivity

The sulcata tortoise native to Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Niger, and Ethiopia, is a reptile that can reach a size of approximately eighty-five centimeters, with weights that exceed one hundred kilograms, so this type of specimen, when kept in Captivity, must be cared for with certain care:

  • Coexistence

This species has a bad temperament, and it does not matter if they are female or male. They can be quite aggressive, this being more noticeable in the breeding season. So remember that when multiple males are kept together, there will inevitably be fights that can be very dangerous and painful for both turtles. It is recommended that you do not place male sulcata tortoises in the same space.

  • The enclosure

In the juvenile stage, the sulcata can be installed in a heated space such as a nursery, which remains at 30 or 32 ° Celsius in the hot spot during the day, and between 23-24 degrees Celsius at night. A good quality heat lamp can work. If possible, place it in a warm area.

In adulthood, the temperatures are the same as for the young species. However, the nursery must be of adequate size and, if necessary, maintain the temperature of the room with several lamps and be equipped with UV B neon. The heating systems and UVB must be connected to a thermostat.

Remember that they require a humidity of 40 to 50% and have suitable hiding places, for which you can use stacks of hay.

1-Outdoor enclosure

It is very important that the adults of this species are in large free areas and outdoors, as it is essential for their health and especially because of their large size.

The specimens that will be housed in outdoor enclosures must be very well structured, and in the warm months, they must be very careful to take protective measures against predators.

In addition, it must be kept very carefully and planted with small ornamental shrubs, grasses, shrubs, and trees. These areas should include some rocky accumulations that serve as hiding places and some areas that provide additional shade.

The sulcata tortoise is a fairly strong species; it easily tunnels, being a species that likes burrows. It is recommended to ensure its environment outdoors because when making its tunnels, in many cases, it escapes from the enclosure.

It does not hibernate. Therefore, it is very important and necessary to have a large space inside, which is warm. During very cold seasons, extra heating should be included, so it is recommended to consult an expert

2-Enclosure or interior accommodation


When the turtles are in their first months of life, that is, they are hatchlings, they can be kept in tanks of about 200 liters, or spaces of one and a half meters by sixty centimeters.

It is imperative that indoor enclosures mimic or replicate their natural habitats, with heat lamps and UVB lighting (important) and a heater just below the tank.

The soil of the accommodation should be made with peat, cypress mulch, or pieces of grass; You must avoid bark, sand, shells, or very small substrates that the animal can ingest.

Indoor enclosures, which will be temporary in winter for those adult turtles, should be in a large area, with the floor covered with canvas and a layer of the substrate of about five centimeters approximately, preferably of hay shavings very similar to the horse stall.

Remember to change the substrate frequently to keep the environment clean. Also, a shallow pond of water but large enough to soak and soak comfortably is important. They should be soaked at least twice a week, as this contributes to defecation.

  • Feeding

Place a large plate of fresh vegetables daily, such as alfalfa, banana, dandelion, clover, oak leaf, etc. In addition, you must maintain a large pond of water adapted to the size of the reptile. As mentioned above, this tortoise requires its diet to be high in fiber, so it can be offered broadleaf weeds and grass hay, cactus pads, or nopal.

The diet of herbs and weeds should be supplemented with dark green leaves and plant matter, which are rich in calcium, vitamin A and vitamin C, for example, green dandelions, Galician cabbage or collard greens, turnip greens, mustard, lettuce Roman, escarole, endive, etc.

You can also offer flowers and petals such as hibiscus, clover, dandelion, and grape leaves. Everything must be free of pesticides and herbicides. You should limit fruits and vegetables that are high in moisture and avoid kale, spinach, and lettuce in excess, as they do not contain the nutrients they need.

There are vitamin supplements on the market that contain calcium powder and vitamin D3, which can be sprinkled on vegetables and mixed with food to boost vitamin A levels.

  • Diseases and care.

When kept in captivity, the conditions and diseases contracted by this species, and also by many other reptiles, are largely the result of poor maintenance. It is necessary to remember that turtles have specific thermoregulation and feeding needs, and failing to comply with their physiological requirements puts them at risk and makes them extremely fragile.

Prevention will always be the best treatment and your best option if you want a healthy animal. Prevention consists of providing the turtle with suitable and adequate maintenance conditions and a diet adapted to the species and its nutritional requirements.

A sick turtle will never regain good health only with drug treatments, no matter how effective, if they are not kept in the right conditions. They are species that are affected by cold, even more, associated with high humidity, generally developing rhinitis. In these cases, the solution is not to indefinitely administer an antibiotic treatment to the animal but to condition and adapt its enclosure and provide it with a diet according to its requirements and needs.

  • Specialist care

-It is important to carry out an annual check-up to verify the health status of the sulcata tortoise. This will make it possible to detect infectious or bone diseases.

-In some cases, adult females may suffer from egg retention in the period between March and September. The tortoise may have anorexia at this stage, and a visit to the veterinarian is recommended.

-Deworm the turtle once a year, as these animals are carriers of many internal parasites, such as intestinal worms, flatworms, among others, which generally tolerate very well as long as they are in excellent health.

The stress or illness that can be caused by the poor conditions where it is kept in captivity generates a reduction in the responses of the immune system and, in turn, trigger a proliferation of its internal parasites, for which it would be necessary to carry out a treatment deworming.

It is not necessary to deworm your tortoise while it is in excellent health, but if you notice the presence of some worms in its droppings, you should consult your vet.

-In the event that the turtle has trauma to the shell, breathing difficulties, or the presence of bubbles near the nostrils, it should be considered medical emergencies.

Common problems

If your sulcata tortoise exhibits changes in appetite and defecation, consult your vet; However, there are also other very common problems, including:

  • Lack of dynamism
  • Loss of appetite and therefore weight.
  • Approach out of sync
  • The friction of the plastron on the ground.
  • Noisy breathing and wheezing
  • Remain with your mouth open.
  • Hypersalivation
  •  A thick fluid that flows from the nostrils.
  •  Diarrhea
  • Eyeball depression.
  • Swollen legs and eyelids.
  • The presence of red spots under the scales of the extremities or plastrons being able to suspect a generalized infection known as sepsis.
  • Softening of the shell.
  • Stunted growth
  • Hypocalcemia and metabolic bone disorders.
  • Bladder stones
  • Respiratory diseases.
  • Dehydration
  • Eye conditions and injuries
  • A poor diet is reflected in appearance.
  • Constipation
  • Pyramidism (a disease where excessive growth of the back shields is reflected that affects normal lung function, egg-laying, compromises the bones, weakens the legs, leads to nail problems, and causes arthritis, among other things).

The sulcata tortoise: A pet?

It is important that you take into account some things before you take one of these little and funny baby turtles to your home since later you will have to take them into account:

  • This tortoise is the largest continental species in the world, surpassing in size the giant tortoises of the Galapagos and the Aldabra Islands. Therefore, that little baby that fits in the palm of your hand will be a giant that will need a lot of space.
  • They are reptiles that, when well cared for, are very long-lived. It is estimated that they can live more than one hundred years.
  • The sulcata requires large areas of grass and vegetation, in addition to constant access to clean freshwater.
  • It does not tolerate humid or cold weather, so they require air-conditioned spaces that provide constant warmth in winter times and guarantee heat at night in summer; this being an absolute requirement.
  • They are turtles that possess tremendous strength and are excellent burrowers. Sturdy fences or solid walls never hurt to prevent your escapes.
  • They are usually aggressive species and, as already mentioned, large and strong. For this reason, caution should be exercised when interacting with them. Prevent children from interacting with sulcatas without the supervision of an intelligent adult.

The sulcata tortoise became a highly commercialized species. The interest in having this specimen as a pet increased towards the nineties due to its resistance and low price. However, many people acquired them without knowing it and without the least interest in learning about them.

Accepting an animal of this type implies investigating, understanding, and having the possibility to take care of it since they have special requirements and also grow quickly. Unfortunately, when its dimensions and its enormous strength become evident, they begin to bother many of its owners, who decide not to continue with their care.

There are many species of reptiles, which include the sulcata tortoise, which arrives at the doors of zoos and rescue societies to be “donated” and in other cases “returned to nature,” which translates into the abandonment of the animal in open fields and areas where they usually starve, attacked by a predator or crushed by some vehicle or machinery.

Remember that animals are not a short-term fad; they require dedication and care, so if you are not able to have a type of responsibility like that, do not acquire them. Reptiles, and in this case the turtle, are a type of animal that can live for a long time, so it will be a long-term commitment.

Difference between the sulcata tortoise and other giant tortoises

These large reptiles are separated into two groups that inhabit the tropical islands of Aldabra and the Galapagos. They are specimens that reach weights of more than four hundred kilograms and lengths greater than one meter. They are followed in size by the sulcata tortoise, native to Africa and currently the largest continental species.

The giant tortoises moved and dispersed throughout the continent until they reached the islands, this can be corroborated when you observe the kinship between the giant tortoises of Aldabra and Mascarenes, with the tortoises of Madagascar, or the similarity of the turtles of Ecuadorian lands with the giant tortoises of the Galapagos.

However, these species show excessive growth compared to their relatives on the mainland; this phenomenon is called island gigantism, which is nothing other than the considerable increase in size in animal species that are isolated on an island, with respect to their predecessors in the continental territories.

Such a phenomenon has various causes, such as:

  • The absence of predators.
  • Competitive release, which occurs when a species manages to remove its closest competitor from an area, so there are fewer factors that limit the development and size of its population.
  • Adaptation to the constant environmental changes that occur on the islands.

Giant tortoises are among the living animals with the highest life expectancies in the world, estimated to live for a hundred years or more. Some species of the Madagascar tortoise reached almost one hundred and ninety years old, the well-known Tu’i Malila who died in 1965, with one hundred and eighty-eight years.

At the time of their discovery, these giant tortoise species were captured and slaughtered to use their meat as food. So great and uncontrolled was their hunting that they practically caused their extinction in the year 1900. However, fortunately, species of giant tortoises could still be saved, which are currently under strict and vigilant conservation laws and are registered as an of the many threatened species.

It is estimated that at some point in the Galapagos Islands, there was a population of turtles that reached about three hundred and fifty thousand specimens. However, today, there are more or less sixty thousand, and this thanks to the entire team of biologists and conservationists who have worked relentlessly so that the population of the giant species can recover.

However, the appearance of a giant tortoise that was supposed to be extinct more than a century ago on the island known as Fernandina of the Galapagos Islands renews faith and brings joy to those who are dedicating their lives to this noble work. Scientists and other members of the teams working hard in the Galapagos hope to find other specimens of this type in other Ecuadorian islands.

The reptile would be in decades, the first specimen found in its place of origin of Chelonoidis phantasticus, a turtle that disappeared more than a hundred years ago. Of approximately twenty kilos and fifty centimeters of shell, this turtle has marks and morphometric characteristics that allow us to deduce that it is about a hundred years old.