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10 Year Member!
May 6, 2010
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After reading Neal's excellent Leopard Care Sheet, I took it upon myself to compose one for sulcatas. It took me a couple hours to develop. I then conferred with Tom, who suggested very few, but pertinent, changes. Now, understand that every tortoise I've acquired had some degree of pyramiding and, to a lesser degree, hydration concerns...and I stopped it all dead in its tracks. This has worked well for me. It's tried and true...

Indoor Housing

The options here are limitless. You can modify a terrarium. You can construct a tortoise table or similar habitat out of wood, metal and acrylic. I'm not going to go into too many particulars. I'm of the opinion that simple is best...the obvious being the use of a brooder box immediately upon hatching (to minimize ingestion of vermiculite or other medium). I use two 50 gallon Rubbermaid tubs; one filled with six inches of an 80/20 combination of coconut bark:coco coir and the other six inches of orchard grass hay. Both have a 160W Mercury Vapor Bulb (MVB) and a 100W Ceramic Heat Emitter (CHE) suspended approximately 18 inches above the substrate surface. The dual tubs serve a vital function. The hay tub fuels the animals' feeding instincts and encourages burrowing. The bark/coir tub provides a 'natural' humid environment and also encourages burrowing and a comfortable nights sleep...which is crucial to good health and growth. You can and should add a humid hide, as well. It can be as simple as a Sterilite container with a hole large enough for your tortoise to crawl through. You can use sphagnum moss, peat moss or coco coir to fill it. Because my hatchlings burrow, I know longer use any kind of humid hide, but I can't argue strongly enough that one be provided...whether indoors or out. For those unable to give their sulcata outdoor access, a large indoor habitat needs to be provided. This is not for debate. If you plan on keeping an animal that can reach 30" and 200 pounds, you need to provide housing that can sustain a beast with the potential for all kinds of damage. And, in this case, we're talking about converting your garage, basement or spare bedroom into your tortoise's habitat! Of course, you'll need to make all kinds of changes to the door(s) and wall(s)...unless you want your tortoise to 'construct' his own burrow...through your wall.

Outdoor Housing

I house my tortoises outdoors, weather permitting (usually mid-Spring through mid-Fall). I live in the high desert of Los Angeles County where summertime temperatures regularly reach 105F for weeks at a time. I allow my hatchlings to remain outdoors 12 hours a day. They have access to water and shade. Being primarily crepuscular, they are fed in the early morning and early evening. They graze freely throughout the day...when they are not sleeping. The same rules that would apply to indoor environments apply here, as well! They need variant temperatures. The shade should be no hotter than 90F. Their basking spot should be a flat, unencumbered area of concrete, slate. flagstone or dirt that can reach temperatures well over 100F. Remember, this is a species that originates from the sub-Sahara, so extreme temperatures for them are the norm. Even the winters there rarely drop below 90F. Another overlooked benefit of outdoor access is the seemingly limitless (and beneficial) access to exercise. They can climb uneven ground, work at pulling a stubborn blade of grass from the ground, even just scurrying around the yard gives them this much-needed activity. Just make the neccesary implements are in place to ensure your animal's safety...protecting it from predators or that troublesome garden hose. Again, if you've acquired a large specimen or have grown your hatchling to monstrous proportions, you need to comply with a few obvious needs to sulcata-proof your yard. If you have French doors or sliding glass doors...they need to be protected. You'll probably need to build a perimeter wall to prevent the tortoise access to the glass. This wall would bode well for your house panels, as well! Even a 50 pound sulcata can grind stucco to dust or wear holes into vinyl and/or wood panelling.


Until your sulcata reaches 4" Straight Carapace Length (SCL), you need to regulate ambient temperatures. As hatchlings in the wild, they likely spend much of their first year in burrows. The best rule of thumb is to provide them with an indoor habitat where temperatures range from 80F to at least 100F. The hottest being their basking spot. The coolest being their hide or burrow. Larger sulcata can bear temperatures as cold as 50F (in captivity) and as high as 150F (in the wild). Generally speaking, the 4" rule comes into play with humidity levels, as well. The key to proper humidity levels is relative to the temperatures. As long as temperatures are 80F or above, 100% humidty is acceptable, but anything 50% or above will promote a healthier animal. This can be achieved by keeping your substrate (except grass or hay) moist or by utilizing a humidifier or even a swamp cooler. Again, larger sulcata do quite well with minimal humidity.


Reiterating what I referred to in Outdoor Housing, sulcatas are crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk), therefore I feed them in the early morning and early evening. This is a generally good rule for hatchlings-4" SCL juveniles. What they should be offered has long been debated. I've gotten the best results with the following: Grasses (I have five varieties growing), hay (I use Orchard for hatchlings and Alafalfa for juveniles and adults), various weeds (I've got two types of clover, dandelion, sow thistle, mallow, black medic), Cactus pads (specifically opuntia sp), mulberry leaves, collard greens, escarole, endive, elephant bush, red apple iceplant, roses, hibiscus, gazania and, occasionally, grated carrots, pumpkin and watermelon (once a year). They are fed a combination of moistened Mazuri/Marion Zoological Tortoise Diets with finely chopped hay mixed in on a daily basis. There is nothing wrong with a high protein diet, as long as it's not at the expense of fiber rich foods. High protein refers to plant matter such as alfalfa. Sulcatas are opportunistic feeders, and will feed on carrion and bones...if they happen upon it. Animal-based protein should NEVER be offered as part of their diet. It is essential that they have access to water...from day one...especially, if a high protein diet is implemented. While some prefer to supplement their diets with Ca (with or without D3), I will grind up some cuttlebone and add it to their Mazuri once a week. I also leave one or two intact cuttlebones for them to gnaw on, at their leisure. Sun exposure of at least an hour a day (more is better) should eliminate the need for added D3.


This is the single most important element! As with all the Earth's inhabitants...water is the difference in whether your sulcata will thrive or suffer. The old train of thought was that tortoises hydrate through their diet...and they do. But, to a very small extent. Tortoises drink...a lot! They just don't drink all that often. But they need water externally, as well as internally. I soak my young tortoises 30 - 60 minutes a day in lukewarm water. The tub is filled about a third of the way up the carapce. A variety of activity occurs at this time. They will rest, explore, drink and eliminate. At other times throughout the day, they can be misted with a spray bottle, sprinklers or misting system.


Undoubtedly, the GREATEST engima in the hobby! There are so many pyramided tortoises of all species that newcomers to Tortoise-keeping believe it the norm. All manner of (possible) cause have been debated for years. There are those that attribute high protein diets to its cause, while others say it's a lack of humidity. And both may very well be the cause...but I believe neither is harmful as long as the tortoise is well-hydrated. As mentioned earlier, wild hatchling sulcata spend probably a year or more in their burrows, ingesting whatever the may happen upon...but at least egg remnants (yolk sac, shell, albumen) as well as whatever fecal material their mother left for them. Obviously, their subterranean temperatures, humidity and diet would differ from that in their adult biome. But to what extent? And what role does this play in pyramiding? When push comes to shove, it's all about the delicate balance between proper diet, hydration, temperature and humidity.
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