Home | General Reptile & Amphibian Articles | How Reptiles Adjust to Novel Situations – Notes on African Spurred Tortoises, Geochelone sulcata and Aldabra Tortoises G. gigantea

How Reptiles Adjust to Novel Situations – Notes on African Spurred Tortoises, Geochelone sulcata and Aldabra Tortoises G. gigantea

African Spurred Tortoise
Reptiles are often thought of as “unresponsive” by those who are unfamiliar with their ways. Reptile enthusiasts, of course, know better – anyone who has kept a turtle has no doubt been impressed by the speed at which they learn to make associations (especially where food is involved!). Of the turtles, the tortoises seem particularly quick to learn new behaviors.

Aldabra tortoises kept at the Bronx Zoo, to my surprise, adopted a unique strategy to avoid losing their dinners to exhibit mates. At feeding time, each tortoise would lie down on its food tray and slowly edge backwards, eating on the way and so exposing only a tiny bit of its meal to others at any one time!

At a record weight of 240 pounds, African spurred tortoises, the world’s third largest species, seem ill suited as pets. Yet they remain popular, due partly to their engaging ways (please research their needs carefully when deciding upon a pet tortoise – most people are better off with smaller species). Three kept by a friend in a large apartment in NYC would move from room to room throughout the day, following the sun. If a closed door blocked their way, they commenced pounding upon it with their carapaces (upper shells). The racket (and damage to the door) wrought by three frustrated 50 pound tortoises soon “taught” my friend to leave their basking path unimpeded!


You can get some idea of the rewards and difficulties of life with a giant tortoise at:


  1. avatar

    Geronimo and Aunt Jemima, 2 African Spurred Tortoises (60 lbs) are living in my backyard. The are seemingly happy grazing all day on my untreated lawn and enjoying life and each other. Their food likes ranges from hard boiled eggs with shell very occasionally to homegrown lettuce, whole apples, cucumbers, carrot peelings, sweet potatoes, strawberries etc.
    I enjoy their interactions and funny antics while working in my vegetable garden. At night they both trot off to their little playhouse with a large heatable mat and loads of dry leaves to cuddle in. Soon they will have to come inside and live out the winter in my basement with their heat mat and lamp. They do not need too much roaming room in the winter time and are rather inactive preferring to stay near the heat sources.

    • avatar

      Hello Gisela, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your interest in our blog. Keeping your tortoises outdoors for a good part of the year is an ideal situation.

      I’m just a little concerned about the diet you’ve described. Spurred tortoises can be tricky – they come from a very harsh environment, and are able to grow rapidly almost any diet. Problems related to a poor diet do not show up for years, often after they are too far advanced to correct.

      Fruits, cucumbers, carrots and such should only be used as an occasional treat. Grazing on the lawn is good, but less so if only typical “lawn grass” is available. Spurred tortoises need a diet high in fiber – grasses of many species (weeds) and hay should comprise 75% or their diet (avoid Timothy hay if possible, the tough, sharp ends often cause eye damage). If not given a high fiber diet, digestive disorders will ensue. Fruit on a regular basis changes the gut pH radically and leaves the tortoises susceptible to internal parasites. Rapid growth, which is encouraged by a nutrient rich diet, leads to the “pyramiding” (pointed carapace plates) that is so common among pet spurred tortoises that many hobbyists believe it to be normal.

      Daily calcium supplements are important as this species grows rapidly, and even at 60 lbs they still have a way to go (the record is a 240 pound animal!). A UVB source should be provided during the winter as well.

      I’m sure you’re in for many years of enjoyable interactions and observations….good luck and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  2. avatar

    Hi, Frank, my tortoises are fine living in the basement – for now –
    I give them Edamame (Soybeans) once a
    week and they love these best. Escarole is also very good for
    I bet they are looking forward to the outside, though, I need to find them a home for next year. Preferably in the South……
    I have been ill and am undergoing Chemo right now.

    • avatar

      Hello Gisela, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your interest in our blog.

      Yes, soy beans and escarole are both very good foods for tortoises of all kinds. Placement is usually difficult, but I’ve had some luck and am in touch with a number of tortoise societies that also try to help. Please let me know if you need any assistance in the future.

      I hope the new year brings good health and happiness,

      Good luck and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    I was given a morbidly ill sulcata the week before Thanksgiving last year. My wife nursed him back to health with the assistance of a good vet. This took twice daily injections of antibiotics and fluids for 8 weeks. He was not much bigger than my hand. Pulling out the legs of a sulcata to stick him with a needle when he is aware it’s coming was very difficult. He seems to be thriving now and displays an extraordinary amount of affection for my wife. He lives in our family room while we are at work and we take him outside when we arrive home. He pops his head out of his hut when he hears my wife’s voice. He seems to enjoy being held and have his shell rubbed while we are watching TV. I have 7 dogs, 4 cats and 2 huge pot belly pigs that live with us also. He snuggles next to all of them whenever he can. This has become a problem as the pigs are not always understanding of his burrowing into their side to nap. We have a larger yard and he seems to be finally familiar with the layout. He explored initially by following the lines of the house and landscapinig outlines. He also walks up and down the driveway. We are always watching because he is much faster than you might imagine. He has been going outside for 5 months now and I think he knows where the front door is. He is eating a huge amount of food which consists of alot of romaine lettuce and various other greens. Nothing makes him happier than cherries for a treat or stealing a piece of chicken from the dogs. He comes to my wife when he hears her voice. He also eats any kind of “poop” he can find. He knows to check out the spots on the driveway in case geese have visited. Nasty! Today he was trying to keep up with the cats who were walking ahead of him just far enough so he couldn’t catch up. If my wife sits in the grass he seems to chase other animals away from her. I think he is trying to swing his backside at them. He is small enough so it’s comical now but I think this could be a problem in the future. I never imagined the social nature of a reptile like a tortoise. By the way, his name is Vladimir and we hope to have him for many years to come!

    • avatar

      Hello Jim, Frank Indiviglio here.

      Thanks for your interest in our blog and for passing along your observations.

      I’m sure you have much of interest in store. As you suggest, large tortoises can become a problem around other pets. Males especially tend to become very territorial and often need to be separated as they mature.

      Please check out this article on Tortoise Diets – much of the information there, especially as regards fiber, is applicable to Spurred Tortoises. Many tortoises will consume the droppings of other animals, but it is important that you try to prevent that as micro-organisms that cause little harm to 1 species can be dangerous when ingested by another.

      Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  4. avatar
    Gisela Zanelli

    Dear Frank, just wanted to thank you for writing and posting all abt. the spurred tortoises at this site. I miss my 2 sulcatas a lot but they are both in Florida. My son shipped them there to a lady that was very interested in
    giving them a good home. When they got to be over 100 lbs each I could not manage them any more. I am happy that they are in a better place.
    Now someone has to mow my lawn!!!
    I still wonder how the 2 tortoises kept the lawn at an even surface; that is
    most amazing to me! I still have my female leopard tortoise. “Muffin” is
    doing well and I wonder what you can teach me about her diet….so far she has not shown any interest in fruits and only eats Romaine lettuce…..
    basically. She has occasionally nibbled on a strawberry but that is all.
    Compared to the Sulcatas she is a bit dull and very scared. I love her
    just the same but have had her for over 5 yrs. now and wish she would relax a bit and come out of her shell, so to speak….

    • avatar

      Hi Gisella,

      Thanks for the kind words; glad you found a home for your tortoises..not easy at that size!

      Leopard tortoises can be fed in a similar manner, but they are generally more choosy so you’ll need to try many items, keep the animal hungry sometimes some that it takes a healthy diet. They are native to arid grassland habitats and should not have much fruit at all. Romaine alone, however, is not adequate and will lead to health problems over time. Feed as described in this article (its needs are the same as the species covered here). Please also see this article for general care info (esp. notes on “grassland species”). It should take some of the grasses and weeds accepted by your spurred tortoises; prickly pears, if available, are also a favorite.

      Reactions to people etc. vary between species and individuals, but few are as “outgoing” as spurred tortoises. Give the tortoise a shelter and do not force contact..it may change in time.

      Please let me know if you need further info and how all goes, best, Frank

  5. avatar
    Gisela Zanelli

    Oh, yes, I forgot to mention that Muffin, my African Leopard Tortoise weighs abt. 20 lbs

  6. avatar

    Hello! My sister and her husband are interested in adopting a 100-pound, 22 year old African spurred tortoise from my boss (a veterinarian). This involves moving him from northern NM to the Tucson area. He is currently housed inside with heaters and a heat pad (approx. temp varies between 80-95 deg F). We feed him hay in the winter with the occasional fruit. In warmer weather, he has free run of approximately 1800 sf of turf area. He seems to respect the 5′ chain link fence and hasn’t dug holes. The tortoise belonged to her clinic partner until she died of cancer three years ago.

    My sister has over three acres of desert (lots of mesquite, prickly pear cactus, cholla, other desert plants) and desert dwellers (javelina, coyotes, lots of birds). My questions are:
    1. What would be an appropriate area for a single tortoise?
    2. Will he require a tall fence to keep the javelina and coyotes out?
    3. Can he be allowed to eat the cactus (I read that they can be fed prickly pear if the pads are despined)?
    4. How much should he be fed?
    5. Should we wait until it is warm here (May or June) before we transport him there (where it will be at least 30 deg F hotter)?
    Many thanks!

    • avatar

      Hello Janine,

      Quite an undertaking!, but sounds like a nice situation for the animal. No simple formula for their needs, re space…he may be more or less active in a new environment; temperature will have an effect as well. I kept 2 80 pounders on 1/2 acre in NY, but very hard to generalize. Same re food, unfortunately…much depends on temperature, activity…I would try to keep him on a diet similar to the one to which he is accustomed…changes can wreck havoc on their digestive systems.

      Peccaries and coyotes are very good at getting through and under fences..I’d sink it below ground and curve the fencing outwards at the bottom. Even though the legs of an animal that size offer great protection, cuts and infection would be possible were pigs or coyotes to get at him. The tortoise may also dig or try to break through the fence, even though he hasn’t in the past..temperature, scents, etc. in new environments may change behaviors.

      They will eat prickly-pear, most owners report it is a favorite; de-spined always best, despite fact that they take some pretty rough foods in wild,. Not much info as to other cacti…perhaps a tortoise owner in the area (check local herp societies) might have experimented?

      Always best to avoid radical changes if possible…if animal is in a reduced state of activity now, best to wait.
      ..of course, there will be a big change in spring, when temps in AZ are higher; I don’t think timing will be all that critical if he is moving about and feeding now.
      You might enjoy the linked articles below.

      Good luck, please keep me posted, best, Frank

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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