Sulcata Tortoise (Geochelone sulcata)
Welcome to the ReptiFiles Sulcata Tortoise Care Sheet!
Sulcata tortoises (Geochelone sulcata) are also known as the African spurred tortoise. They are giant terrestrial reptiles with a thick, domed shell, large overlapping scales on the front legs, spurs on the rear legs, a slightly hooked upper mandible, and serrated anterior and posterior marginal scutes. The shell is light brown to yellow in color, with older individuals showing noticeable growth rings on each scute. The plastron is ivory-colored. The skin is light to medium yellow-brown.
Sulcata tortoises are among the largest tortoises in the world. Although females are generally smaller than males, these tortoises can still grow 24-30″/61-76cm long and weigh between 70-110lbs/32-50kg on average, although particularly large males can reach over 40″/102cm and 200lbs/91kg.
Sulcata tortoises are native to the southern Sahara area of Africa, from Senegal and Mauritania in the west to Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia in the east. Here they have adapted to making the most of hot, arid desert or dry savannah-type habitats.
Tortoises are well-known for being long-lived, and sulcatas are no exception! Although this species is fairly hardy, their lifespan, activity level, and care requirements make them a high-commitment pet. Sources indicate that this species is capable of living for over 70 years when appropriate sulcata tortoise care is provided, so plan on this pet being in your family for a while.
Shopping List: Preparing for Your Sulcata Tortoise
These are products I personally recommend for setting up a functional sulcata tortoise enclosure. Because most sulcatas are purchased as juveniles, this shopping list is simply for the equipment you will need to get started, and is strictly appropriate for young sulcata tortoises less than 2 years old/10″ long and housed indoors. It is extremely impractical to house older adult sulcata tortoises indoors on a long-term basis. Adjustments and recommendations for housing larger sulcata tortoises will be specified in each section of this care sheet.
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- 8’L x 4’W x 2.5’H enclosure (minimum)
- 90w Philips PAR38 Halogen Flood Bulb, x2
- Zoo Med Combo Deep Dome Dual Lamp Fixture OR Arcadia Lamp Holder Prox2
- Vivarium Electronics 200w Rheostat
- Vivarium Electronics 80 Watt Radiant Heat Panel
- Herpstat 1 Proportional Thermostat
- 46″ T5 HO Arcadia 12% OR Zoo Med Reptisun 10.0 UVB bulb
- 48″ Arcadia ProT5 OR Vivarium Electronics T5 HO fixture
- 34″ Arcadia Jungle Dawn LED Bar, x2
- Zilla 24/7 Digital Power Center
- Zoo Med Digital Combo Thermometer Humidity Gauge, x2
- Exo Terra Mister
- 16 ft³ 60:40 sand/soil mix
- Exo Terra Tortoise Cave, x2
- Misc. décor
- cork flats
- edible, drought-tolerant live plants
- Exo Terra Feeding Dish, X-Large
- 12″ diameter plant saucer
- Repashy Superveggie
- Exo Terra Sepia Bones
Sulcata Tortoise Enclosure Size Requirements
Providing an enclosure that is large enough to give your tortoise adequate opportunity to explore, forage, thermoregulate, and generally exercise natural behaviors is an essential part of responsible sulcata tortoise care. 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
- Height = 3x adult length
Enclosures must also have a 6-12” tall, opaque barrier on the front to discourage pacing behavior.
Housing young sulcata tortoises <10″ long
The minimum recommended enclosure size for housing a juvenile sulcata tortoise under 10″/25cm is 8’L x 4″W x 2.5’H, or 32 square feet of floor space. In metric, that’s 2.5m x 1.25m x 0.75m, or 3.25 square meters. This may seem like a lot, but remember that young sulcatas grow fast! You can build your own enclosure (the DIY Reptile & Amphibian Enclosures group on Facebook is very helpful), or purchase one pre-made:
- Maximum Reptile Essential 8 Foot PVC & Aluminum Enclosure
- Toad Ranch s-TEGU-saurus Sanctuary 8’x4’x4′ Reptile Enclosure
- Kages 96″x48″x48″ / 8’x4’x4′ Premium PVC Enclosure
- Dragonhaus 8ft BEAST
Can you use a tortoise table? While tortoise tables are an appealing housing option because they’re less expensive, the open design makes it very difficult to maintain appropriate levels of heat and humidity for sulcata tortoises. This is important because young sulcatas are particularly sensitive to being too cold or too dry, and it affects their health and development.
Enclosure modifications: For particularly young sulcatas, such as hatchlings, it’s okay to partition off your enclosure at first for easier maintenance and observation. Then you can move the partition as they grow.
Can young sulcatas be housed outdoors? It’s best not to house young sulcatas outdoors for the same reasons that a tortoise table is not recommended. In addition, they are also particularly vulnerable to predators. However, supervised outdoor excursions can be a beneficial opportunity for natural sunshine and an enrichment activity!
Housing older sulcata tortoises >10″ long
Considering that sulcata tortoises generally grow up to 30″/76cm long, keeping them indoors is not a practical long-term housing solution for most people. After all, according to the above formula, an appropriate pen would have to be at least equivalent to 25’L x 12.5’W x 7.5’H (312.5 square feet). In metric, that’s 7.6m x 3.8m x 2.3m, or 29 square meters. Bigger is always better!
In other words, when you take on a pet sulcata tortoise, you must be ready to build a large outdoor pen. Of course, if you happen to have an appropriate amount of indoor space available to dedicate to a sulcata tortoise enclosure, you could theoretically house them indoors. Aside from the fact that sulcata tortoises have been known to dig through drywall, I don’t recommend this approach simply because it’s not very practical. Appropriately lighting, heating, and cleaning an indoor enclosure of that size is a logistical nightmare — not to mention extremely expensive.
Setting up an outdoor tortoise pen: An outdoor 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 strong enough to stand up to an adult sulcata’s strength (concrete cinder blocks work well — avoid wood), sunk at least 12″ into the soil to discourage burrowing escapes, and the top of the pen should covered with chain link to keep out potential predators.
If you live in an area where the climate is not appropriate to house your tortoise outdoors for at least most of the year, and you don’t have indoor space for temporarily housing your pet when the weather is poor (ex: a heated 1-car garage), then a sulcata tortoise is not likely to be the best pet for you.
Can multiple sulcata tortoises be housed in the same enclosure?
In very large outdoor pens (e.g. paddocks/pastures), multiple sulcatas can be kept together without too much conflict. However, avoid housing multiple males together, and note that housing males and females together will most likely result in eggs. Considering that sulcata tortoises are currently massively overbred, I beg you: PLEASE DON’T BREED SULCATA TORTOISES. You will only be contributing to an existing problem.
Fortunately, sulcata tortoises are not a notably social species, and can be kept individually without it negatively affecting their mental health.
Lighting & UVB Requirements for Sulcata Tortoises
Sulcata tortoises are diurnal, which means that they are most active during the day. This also means that in order to provide appropriate sulcata tortoise care, bright light and UVB exposure are required during the day to maintain good mental and physical health. Indoors, light sources should be left on for 13 hours/day during summer and 11 hours/day during winter to replicate natural seasonal rhythms.
When 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. To provide appropriate UVB to a sulcata tortoise housed indoors, you will need one of the following:
- Arcadia T5 HO Desert 12% — 9-12″ /23-31cm (mesh), 14-16″ / 36-41cm (no mesh)
- Zoo Med T5 HO ReptiSun 10.0 — 9-12″ /23-31cm (mesh), 14-16″ / 36-41cm (no mesh)
- Arcadia T5 HO Dragon 14% — 10-13″ / 25-33cm (mesh), 15-20″ / 38-51cm (no mesh)
Whichever bulb you use, you will need a reflective T5 HO fixture (Arcadia or Vivarium Electronics brand for best performance). I DO NOT RECOMMEND ANY OTHER BRAND OR STYLE OF UVB LAMP AT THIS TIME.
Due to the way mesh partially blocks UVB radiation, I generally recommend placing your UVB lamp inside the tortoise’s enclosure rather than on top of it, even if you do have a screen top. This bulb should be roughly half the length of the enclosure and mounted on the warm side, close to the heat lamp(s).
(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 between 4.0 – 6.0 in the basking area.)
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 valuable for supporting your tortoise’s mental health.
Here are my preferred lamps for daylight lighting in an 8′ x 4′ sulcata tortoise enclosure:
Sulcata 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, sulcata tortoises warm up by basking in a sunny spot, generally earlier in the morning before the heat of the day really hits.
These are the enclosure temperatures you will need to maintain a young sulcata tortoise:
- Basking area temperature: 100-105°F / 38-41°C
- Ambient/cool zone temperature: 80-90°F / 27-32°C
- Nighttime temperature: 70-75°F / 21- 23°C
Older sulcatas are more resilient to a broader range of temperatures.
To create an evenly-heated basking area, you will need two 90w Philips PAR38 Halogen Flood Bulbs mounted in ceramic sockets such as the Arcadia Lamp Holder Pro or Zoo Med Combo Deep Dome Dual Lamp Fixture. If you are using a 4′ tall enclosure, it’s best to mount the heating inside the enclosure. If shorter, mount the heating on top. 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 higher-wattage bulbs.
For a large enclosure such as an 8×4, you will most likely need a supplementary heat source to help maintain appropriate ambient temperatures. A Vivarium Electronics radiant heat panel will do the job well, and connecting it to a proportional thermostat set to 80-90°F will prevent it from getting too hot.
Measuring temperature: 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.
Heating for outdoor sulcatas: If you are housing your pet in an outdoor pen, artificial heating should not be necessary. However, if nighttime temperatures dip below 50°F/10°C, you will need to provide a shelter with lightless heating such as a ceramic heat emitter or radiant heat panel set to 70-75°F/21-24°C. A chicken or dog house can work well for this purpose.
What to do with outdoor sulcatas during winter: If you live in an area with consistent daytime temperatures below 70°F/21°C during winter, you will need to provide a temporary indoor enclosure equipped with appropriate heating, lighting, substrate, etc. Ideally this will require a modified, heated shed or 1-car garage. Some people use a spare room or part of their basement, but keep in mind that adult sulcata tortoises are very heavy, and you will need a strategy for getting the tortoise in and out of your home!
Humidity Levels for Sulcata Tortoises
Sulcata tortoises may be native to a dry habitat, but that doesn’t actually mean they should be kept super dry. In fact, they need quite a bit more humidity than most people give them. Juvenile sulcata tortoise humidity should always be >80%, with higher at night.
Adults are more resilient to drying out, but juveniles are particularly vulnerable to dehydration. Babies hatch during the rainy season in their native range, and they spend a lot of their time in burrows, which have much higher humidity levels than the surrounding environment. Best-case scenario, chronic dehydration will deform a young sulcata’s shell and cause a condition called “pyramiding.” Worst-case scenario, chronic dehydration can be life-threatening!
To increase humidity levels in the enclosure, use a pressure sprayer to moisten the substrate as-needed. Periodically pouring water into the substrate with a watering can and manually stirring it in is a good idea. You may want to consider installing an automatic misting system such as the MistKing Starter to make it easier to maintain optimal humidity levels. The expense is worth the convenience!
You can monitor humidity levels with a digital probe hygrometer with the probe placed in the middle of the enclosure.
How to create a humid tortoise hide: Whether you are housing your tortoise indoors or outdoors, it must always have access to a humid hideout. This should be a cave or hide box placed on the cool end of the enclosure and lined with moistened substrate to create a humid microclimate.
Soaking young sulcata tortoises: Hatchling sulcata tortoises must be soaked in shallow, 85-95°F/29-35°C water for 20-30 minutes every day to make sure that they are adequately hydrated. The water should be no deeper than their elbows.
What about shell rot and respiratory infections? Kept under the conditions outlined in this care sheet, as well as good hygiene, young sulcata tortoises are not prone to developing moisture-related health issues.
Best Substrates for Sulcata Tortoises
Sulcata tortoises like to dig, and their substrate should facilitate the expression of this natural behavior. The right substrate is also very helpful for maintaining healthy humidity levels! This substrate should be layered at least 6″ deep for juveniles, and 24″ for adults.
Here are a few good options for sulcata tortoise substrate:
- DIY arid mix: 60% organic topsoil + 40% play sand
- Coconut fiber
- Play sand
- Cypress mulch
All of these materials should be readily available to be purchased in bulk at your local garden center.
New sulcata 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 Sulcata Tortoise's Enclosure
Decorations play a vital role in sulcata tortoise care as environmental enrichment. Enrichment items encourage exercise, stimulate your pet’s natural instincts, and help promote overall wellbeing. And, of course, they make the enclosure look nicer! Without décor, your tortoise’s enclosure is just a big box of very boring dirt.
Hollow logs, cork flats, flagstone, dirt mounds, and edible, drought-resistant plants work well as décor in a sulcata tortoise enclosure. A homemade shell-scratching station is often a welcome addition! To determine what plants are safe to use in your enclosure, The Tortoise Table is an excellent resource. 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 explore, and provides a variety of places to sleep or shelter in during the day.
What Do Sulcata Tortoises Eat?
Sulcata tortoises are herbivores, which means that they eat plants. Young and growing sulcata 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 greens for sulcata tortoises:
- Aloe vera
- Bermuda grass
- Bok choy
- Carrot greens
- Celery greens
- Collard greens
- Grape leaves
- Green/red leaf lettuce
- Hibiscus leaves and flowers
- Honeysuckle flowers
- Mulberry leaves
- Mustard greens
- Opuntia cactus
- Plantain leaves
- Romaine lettuce
- Spring mix
- Squash leaves
- Timothy grass
- Turnip greens
One of the keys to good sulcata tortoise care is providing balanced nutrition through 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 make good additions to the list above.
Food should always be offered on a plate or tray to prevent unnecessary ingestion of substrate.
While certain vegetables such as pumpkin and squash can be offered as an occasional treat, fruit should NEVER be offered!
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 at all times. 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. A large flower pot saucer or baking tray, 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 Sulcata Tortoises
Tortoises don’t like to be picked up, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t interact with your pet! Many sulcata tortoises learn to appreciate a gentle shell rub or neck scratch from their owners, and they can also learn to take food from your fingers (or a pair of feeding tweezers if you’re worried about getting bitten).
If you absolutely must pick up a sulcata tortoise, scoop them up from below rather than grabbing them from above. This will help them not to panic. Support both the body and the legs as you lift. For smaller tortoises, use two hands even if you think you can just use one. 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 touching or handling your tortoise. When soap and water is not available, use a good alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
African Spurred Tortoise (Centrochelys sulcata). (n.d.). INaturalist. Retrieved September 20, 2022, from https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/40089-Centrochelys-sulcata
Baines, F. M., Chattell, J., Dale, J., Garrick, D., Gill, I., Goetz, M., Skelton, T., & Swatman, M. (2016). How much UVB does my reptile need? The UV-Tool, a guide to the selection of UV lighting for reptiles and amphibians in captivity. Journal of Zoo and Aquarium Research, 1, 59. https://www.jzar.org/jzar/article/view/150/89
Care of the Sulcata or African Spurred Tortoise: Husbandry & Diet Information. (2016). LafeberVet. https://lafeber.com/vet/wp-content/uploads/Sulcata-Tortoise-Latney2016updated.pdf
Harrold, A. (n.d.). Geochelone sulcata: African Spurred Tortoise. Animal Diversity Web. Retrieved September 20, 2022, from https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Geochelone_sulcata/
Stewart, T. (2011, November 30). Sulcata Tortoise Care Sheet. Reptiles Magazine. https://www.reptilesmagazine.com/sulcata-tortoise-care-sheet/
Sulcata Care Information. (n.d.). Tortoise Acres Rescue & Sanctuary. Retrieved September 20, 2022, from https://www.tortoiseacres.com/sulcata-care-info
Sulcata Tortoise Care. (2016). Royal Veterinary College University of London. https://www.rvc.ac.uk/Media/Default/small-animal/documents/Sulcata-tortoise-care%202016-1.pdf
The Arcadia Reptile Interactive UV Index Guide: Full Sun Baskers. (n.d.). Arcadia Reptile. Retrieved September 20, 2022, from https://www.arcadiareptile.com/lighting/full-sun-baskers/
Tom. (2020, April 18). The Best Way To Raise A Sulcata, Leopard, Or Star Tortoise. Tortoise Forum. https://tortoiseforum.org/threads/the-best-way-to-raise-a-sulcata-leopard-or-star-tortoise.181497/
The ReptiFiles Sulcata Tortoise Care Sheet is a simplified care summary, not a full ReptiFiles care manual. While I have done my best to ensure that the information contained is accurate, due to time constraints, the research behind ReptiFiles care sheets is not as thorough as the research involved with my full-length care guides. I strongly encourage readers to do their own research from high-quality, reputable sources outside of just this care sheet as part of preparing for your new pet reptile.