Pancake Tortoise (Malacochersus tornieri)
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Welcome to the ReptiFiles Pancake Tortoise Care Sheet! This care sheet was written by a professional reptile husbandry specialist, compiled based on reputable sources such as scientific research papers, natural history data, and the experiences of longtime keepers and breeders of this species. You can find a list of these sources at the bottom of this page.
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Pancake tortoises are 5-7″ / 13-18cm long, diurnal, terrestrial reptiles most identifiable by their extremely unique shell, which is not only extremely flat for a tortoise, but also unusually flexible! Coloring is tan to brown, and the shell usually features a striking radiated pattern of gold and dark brown on each scute. The plastron also usually has radial markings. Mature males have much longer and thicker tails than do females.
Pancake tortoises are native to Kenya and Tanzania. Their preferred habitat is rocky hillsides in arid savanna and scrub environments, where their primary defense mechanism is to wedge themselves under and between rocks where predators can’t reach them.
Pancake tortoises can make great pets due to their curious dispositions and smaller size. If you pay attention to providing excellent pancake tortoise care, your pet is likely to live up to 35 years, or possibly more!
Shopping List: Preparing for Your Pancake Tortoise
These are products I personally recommend for setting up a functional pancake tortoise enclosure. Because the equipment you will need varies based on the age/size of the tortoise and whether it is being housed indoors or outdoors, this shopping list is for setting up a “starter” indoor enclosure for pancake tortoises <5″ long.
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- 4’L x 2’W x 2’H front-opening enclosure with mesh top
- 90w Philips PAR38 Halogen Flood Bulb, x2
- Zoo Med Combo Deep Dome Dual Lamp Fixture
- Vivarium Electronics Rheostat
- 22″ T5 HO Arcadia 12% or Zoo Med Reptisun 10.0 UVB bulb
- 24″ Arcadia ProT5 or Vivarium Electronics T5 HO fixture
- 34″ Arcadia Jungle Dawn LED Bar
- Zilla 24/7 Digital Power Center
- Zoo Med Digital Combo Thermometer Humidity Gauge, x2
- Exo Terra Mister
- 2.5 ft³ 60:40 sand/topsoil mix*
- Hiding options and other décor:
- Exo Terra Feeding Dish, X-Large
- 12″ diameter plant saucer
- Repashy Superveggie
- Exo Terra Sepia Bones
*Items marked with an asterisk are generally most affordable to purchase in-person from retailers such as garden/landscape centers.
Pancake Tortoise Enclosure Size Requirements
Pancake tortoises, like other reptiles, require an enclosure that is large enough to give them adequate opportunity to explore, forage, thermoregulate, and generally exercise natural behaviors. It’s important to note with this species that although they are classified as terrestrial, or ground-dwelling, pancake tortoises are natural climbers and need to have the height available to navigate rock stacks as they would in the wild. So vertical space is just as important a consideration to your pancake tortoise’s home as floor space!
A good rule of thumb for housing tortoises is to use the following calculation, based on the tortoise’s expected adult length:
- Length = 10x adult length
- Width = 5x adult length
Because of their need to climb, pancake tortoise enclosures for an occupant of any size should offer no less than 24″/61cm of height.
Considering that pancake tortoises max out around 7″/18cm, the minimum recommended enclosure size for one pancake tortoise is going to be 5.5’L x 3’W x 2’H, or 17 square feet of floor space. In metric, that’s 1.7m x 0.9m x .6m, or 1.6 square meters.
Young tortoises can be temporarily housed in a 4’L x 2’W x 2’H enclosure (which is helpful for maintaining higher humidity levels and ensuring healthier shell growth anyway) until they reach 5″/12cm long, at which point you will need to upgrade them to a larger enclosure or open pen.
Indoors or Outdoors?
It’s generally agreed by tortoise experts that it’s ideal to house your tortoise outdoors whenever possible. The tortoise pen should be placed in a location that is not too wet, with access to both shade and sunshine, and it should have well-draining soil. The wall must be smooth enough to discourage climbing (concrete blocks work well), but you will also need to cover the enclosure with a wide mesh or chicken wire to not only prevent escape, but also keep potential predators out. It’s best practice to also sink the walls at least 6″/15cm into the soil to discourage escape via burrowing.
If you live in an area where it’s not safe to house your tortoise outdoors year-round, you will need to have an appropriately-sized enclosure at the ready indoors. Here are some high-quality options that I recommend:
Enclosures for pancake tortoises <5″/12cm long:
- Custom Reptile Habitats 4 Foot Reptile Enclosure
- Zen Habitats 4’x2’x2′ Original Wood Reptile Enclosure
Enclosures for pancake tortoises >5″/12cm long:
The enclosure may need to be customized to feature a 4″/10cm tall opaque barrier on the front to discourage pacing behavior.
Alternatively, you may wish to simply build your own. I recommend checking out the Facebook group DIY Reptile Enclosures for advice.
Can multiple pancake tortoises be housed in the same enclosure?
Yes! Although pancake tortoises can be housed individually, they are also fairly social, and have been noted to do best in a group situation, preferably a single male with multiple females. Each tortoise should have at least 2 square feet within the enclosure, so the minimum enclosure size outlined above can accommodate up to 8 pancake tortoises, although this is certainly not an excuse for taking on more tortoises than you can manage!
Avoid housing multiple males together, and note that housing males and females together will most likely result in eggs that you will need to dispose of if you are not prepared for the task of raising hatchlings.
Lighting & UVB Requirements for Pancake Tortoises
Pancake tortoises are diurnal, which means that they are most active during the day. This also means that they need exposure to bright light and UVB during the day to maintain good mental and physical health. Light sources should be left on for 12 hours/day.
If you are housing your pet outdoors, artificial lighting of any kind is not necessary.
UVB lighting can be tricky, because in order to get the right strength of UVB (measured by UV Index, or UVI), distance must be considered. Here’s the best UVB bulbs for a pancake tortoise’s needs, as well as how far away it needs to be above the tortoise’s back for optimum function:
Without mesh obstruction
- Arcadia T5 HO Forest 6% — 8-10″ / 20-25cm
- Zoo Med T5 HO ReptiSun 5.0 — 8-10″ / 20-25cm
- Arcadia T5 HO Desert 12% — 14-16″ / 35-41cm
- Zoo Med T5 HO Reptisun 10.0 — 14-16″ / 35-41cm
With mesh obstruction
(This recommendation is an approximation. It is strongly recommended to use a Solarmeter 6.5 to determine the best placement to achieve a UVI of 4.0–6.0 in the basking area.)
Your UVB bulb will need to be housed in a high-quality reflective fixture, preferably Arcadia or Vivarium Electronics brand for best performance. This bulb should be roughly half the length of the enclosure and placed on the warm side, close to the heat lamp(s).
A UVB bulb isn’t bright enough to replicate daylight. To get a little closer to this goal, you will need to supplement with a bright, 6500K T5 HO fluorescent or LED lamp, long enough to span 3/4 to the full length of the enclosure. This is particularly important if you are using live plants, but it is also essential to supporting your tortoise’s general wellbeing!
Here are my preferred choices in daylight lighting for tortoises:
Pancake Tortoise Temperatures & Heating
Humans are warm-blooded, which means that our body temperature is regulated automatically. Tortoises, however, are cold-blooded (poikilothermic), which means that they have to move between areas of different temperatures to regulate their body temperature. In the wild, pancake tortoises warm up by basking in a sunny spot.
Indoors, you will need at least one halogen flood heat lamp to properly heat your tortoise, and multiple lamps if you have multiple tortoises. Here is the range of temperatures you will need to provide for a happy, healthy pancake tortoise:
- Basking area temperature: 100-108°F / 38-42°C
- Cool zone temperature: 75-85°F / 24-30°C
- Nighttime temperature: >68°F / >20°C
To do this, you will need at least one (preferably two) 90w Philips PAR38 Halogen Flood Bulb and a ceramic-socket dome lamp fixture, such as the Zoo Med Mini Deep Dome Lamp Fixture. If you notice that the basking area is too warm, dial it down with a plug-in lamp dimmer or rheostat. If your basking area is too cool, you will need a higher-wattage bulb.
The basking area should be a stack of flat rocks with spaces in-between for the tortoises to wedge themselves into. The most effective way to do this is going to be with some type of Retes Stack, which you can find instructions for in my Ackie Monitor Care Manual.
To measure the temperature of the basking area, you will need a digital probe thermometer with the probe placed on the basking surface. There should be another digital probe thermometer on the other side of the enclosure to monitor the cool end of the temperature gradient. Most reptile-branded digital probe thermometers work well for this purpose.
Outdoor heating for pancake tortoises
If you are housing your pet in an outdoor pen, artificial heating should not be necessary. However, when nighttime temperatures start to dip below 58°F/14°C, it’s time to bring your pet indoors.
Humidity Levels for Pancake Tortoises
Pancake tortoises may be native to a dry type of habitat, but they actually spend a lot of their time in burrows, which have much higher humidity levels than the surrounding environment. This holds especially true for juveniles, as they are particularly vulnerable to dehydration, and their shells are growing rapidly.
Whether you are housing your tortoise indoors or outdoors, it must always have access to a humid hideout. This should be a crevice, cave, or hide box placed on the cool end of the enclosure and lined with moistened substrate to create a humid microclimate.
You shouldn’t need to pay attention to specific humidity levels for adult pancake tortoises, but for juveniles (<4″/10cm), you will need to keep the entire enclosure moderately humid. Target humidity should be between 50-60% during the day and up to 80% at night. You can monitor humidity levels with a digital probe hygrometer with the probe placed in the middle of the enclosure.
To increase humidity levels in the enclosure, use a pressure sprayer to moisten the substrate first thing in the morning. Avoid spraying the tortoise directly.
Best Substrates for Pancake Tortoises
For pancake tortoises, it’s best to use a well-drained, naturalistic substrate that is similar to what is found in their native habitat. 4″/10cm of substrate should be plenty. Here are a few options:
- DIY arid mix: 40% organic topsoil, 40% play sand, 20% Zoo Med Excavator Clay
- Zoo Med ReptiSand, packed
- Exo Terra Desert Sand, packed
New pancake tortoises should pass quarantine before naturalistic substrate is added to their enclosure.
Feces and urates should be removed daily, and contaminated substrate should be scooped out and replaced. Indoor substrate should be completely replaced once every 3-6 months, depending on how diligent you are about daily cleaning.
Decorating Your Pancake Tortoise's Enclosure
Decorations play a vital role in your pancake tortoise’s enclosure as environmental enrichment. Enrichment items encourage exercise, stimulate your pet’s natural instincts, and help promote overall wellbeing (i.e. decrease stress). And, of course, they make the enclosure look nicer! Without décor, your tortoise’s enclosure is just a big box of dirt.
Cork flats, flat stones (flagstone, slate, sandstone, etc.), and edible, drought-resistant plants work best as décor in a pancake tortoise enclosure. To determine what plants are safe to use in your enclosure, The Tortoise Table is an excellent reference. Tortoise seed mixes are also a good way to stock your enclosure with appropriate plants.
Arrange these items in a way that encourages your tortoise to climb and explore (away from the walls!), and provides a variety of places to shelter in. Having lots of available hiding options is particularly important in a pancake tortoise enclosure — in fact, a good rule of thumb is to provide at least 2 hiding places per tortoise. Hiding spots should be available on both the warm and cool sides of the enclosure.
What Do Pancake Tortoises Eat?
Like other tortoises, pancake tortoises are herbivores, which means that they eat plants. Specifically, they are grazers, which means that they do best on a diet of high-fiber grasses and weeds rather than leafy greens.
Young and growing pancake tortoises should be given as much as they can eat every day. Once they near adulthood, this should be reduced to a limited quantity (roughly the same size as their shell) daily to prevent obesity.
Here is a starter list of appropriate plants for pancake tortoises:
- Bermuda grass
- Carrot greens
- Celery greens
- Clover (leaves and flowers)
- Daisy (leaves and flowers)
- Dandelion (leaves and flowers)
- Geranium (leaves and flowers)
- Grape leaves
- Hibiscus (leaves and flowers)
- Honeysuckle (leaves and flowers)
- Mallow (leaves and flowers)
- Mulberry leaves
- Nasturtium (leaves and flowers)
- Opuntia cactus
- Petunia (leaves and flowers)
- Plantain (leaves and flowers)
- Romaine lettuce
- Timothy grass
- Violet (leaves and flowers)
- Wild mustard
Feed the following foods only rarely, and in small quantities: beet greens, spinach, cabbage, chard, collards, kale, broccoli
The key to providing your pet with balanced nutrition is VARIETY! So provide as many different kinds of foods to your pet tortoise as possible. Certain commercial diets such as Mazuri Tortoise LS Diet, Zoo Med Natural Grassland Tortoise Food, and Repashy Grassland Grazer can make nutritious additions, especially in winter or at other times when you need to depend on grocery store greens.
Food should always be offered on a plate or tray to prevent unnecessary ingestion of substrate.
A tiny bit of fruit such as apple, cactus fruit, tomato, or berries can be offered no more than 1x/month.
To make sure your tortoise is getting the right nutrients in its diet, it’s a good idea to sprinkle its food with Repashy Superveggie supplement powder. You will also need to provide a cuttlebone in the enclosure or sanitized (baked) egg shells. Aside from being a good source of calcium, it also helps keep your tortoise’s beak trimmed!
Your tortoise should have access to clean drinking water at all times. Pancake tortoises like to soak and thus tend to foul the water quickly, so you will need to replace the water daily and give it a good scrub with animal-safe disinfectant (I like F10SC or Rescue) if they poo in it.
A large flower pot saucer, sunk into the substrate for easy access, makes for a good water dish. The water should be no deeper than your tortoise’s knees.
Handling Tips for Pancake Tortoises
Generally speaking, tortoises dislike handling and prefer to be left alone — after all, they’re very much ground-dwelling animals, and being picked up freaks them out. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t interact with your pet!
Pancake tortoises aren’t known for being as “social” with humans as some other species, but if you make a point of emphasizing positive interactions, your pet may learn to appreciate a gentle shell rub, as well as to take food from your fingers or a pair of feeding tweezers.
If handling is absolutely necessary, scoop them up from below with your palm rather than grabbing them from above. This will help them not to panic. Then grasp the shell with two hands, supporting both the body and the legs. Keep a firm but gentle grip — falling can do serious damage to a tortoise, and can even be fatal!
Always wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling your tortoise. When soap and water is not available, use a good alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
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