How to Sex Your Leopard Tortoise
The Triple Threat
Every eyeball, shell, and foot can appear the same, but never fear because tortoise anatomy can be deciphered. In summary, you need to look out for three simple things:
- The shape of the plastron overall
- The shape of the scutes near the tail area
- The length of the tail
Leopard tortoises are notoriously difficult to sex - at first. A closer look and understanding the nuances between the two groups is all it takes to hone one's ability to correctly identify them.
Any person who has ever owned, or currently adores, a Leopard tortoise will agree that they are immensely fascinating creatures. Native to southern and eastern Africa, these beautifully patterned reptiles make perfect companions if longevity and size matters in a pet. A full-grown adult can challenge the scales at 80 pounds and although their lifespan averages about 75 years, centenarians are not unheard of.
Keepers need to know the gender of their tortoise for different reasons. Some want to avoid naming their scaly sweetheart Amanda without discovering years later that she's actually more of an Alexander. Other owners wish to identify a breeding pair. Unfortunately, to the untrained eye, same-species torts can sit there and look like a clone army.
Why It's Not Immediately Obvious
If you are one of the lucky ones, your problems are solved the moment your tortoise lays eggs. That's a bulletproof indication of an adult female but few people who are new to keeping these animals will receive or knowingly buy a pregnant tortoise. The majority being sold are hatchlings and juveniles.
Unlike mammals, birds and even fish, these tortoises show little color play when it comes to attracting the opposite sex. There's no real courtship, so the boys do not sport a mane or bright feathers. Leopards don't really know the meaning of parenting either. Mama won't look dull and hang around a nest. What color they do possess; black, yellow, gray and some mottling, blend together to provide males and females with what matters most if you are a slow creature in a dangerous world - superb camouflage.
The carapace, or top shell, will be identical in both. Every Leopard tortoise owns a distinctive black and yellow bonanza that gave them their name and makes for a fetching pet. Though every animal will be as uniquely decorated as a human fingerprint, the carapace can be ignored since there is nothing gender specific about it. So, tear your eyes away from that awesome shell and turn the tortoise over. Carefully, of course.
The Alphabet Matters
The plastron, or bottom shell, is gender specific. The first step is to carefully examine the entire surface and notice the shape. A male will have a hollow, inward-turning belly. This is to accommodate him during the act of mating. Fitting snugly to the domed carapace of the female, coupling will be more stable. Flat plastrons on males will present a royal obstacle to any attempt to continue the family name, because more frustrated dads will slide off than stay in position. The female, faced with no such need for stability, has a straight plastron.
The plastron also consists of bony flaps, or scutes. The bottom pair is called the anal scutes and is nearest to the tail area. This is the first place experienced handlers look as it readily tells you what you are looking at. Well, most of the time but more on that later.
Congratulations, it's a boy!
Party time, it's a girl!
When Girls Look Like Boys
There will come a time that you come across a Leopard tortoise and it makes no sense. A keeper might see that the animal has V-shaped scutes (alright...a male), but the plastron is flatter than a celeb's abs (huh?). Sometimes, in both genders, the "shell letters" do not form as clearly as they should and males' plastrons aren't noticeably concave. Then you get an odd mix that resembles both. Even though this is probably the first thought that hits - it's highly unlikely that the animal is a hermaphrodite.
One trait that cannot be confused is the tail. It serves as confirmation to properly shaped anal scutes or in the case of confusion, as the one thing that you can rely on to tell the sex. A male Leopard tortoise will have a long tail, distinguishable even when folded away. A female has a small, dainty tail that can sometimes be completely withdrawn into the shell. Have a look again at the images above. The male is young and doesn't have a deep plastron. However, a closer look will show that he is tucking his tail away for safety. Can't see it? Then look at the female's. The stubby tail is obvious and so short it cannot be folded away behind the scutes like the male's.
Always remember to work gently with a tortoise. They cannot scream or put up a scared facial expression to let you know that they don't like a given situation. If you are serious about being the best tortoise (or even turtle) owner then always keep the following in mind:
- Tortoises and turtles aren't the same as other pets. They need care but not the same amount of physical affection one gives a dog. They do experience stress when handled, so keep it gentle and make it quick.
- A constantly stressed reptile will soon be a sick reptile.
On a final note, if your pet is skittish and you'd rather not freak it out, there is another option. This requires patience but it will pay off in the end. Sometimes when a Leopard tortoise walks or does its business, they tend to push out their tails. Observation may take a while - think more in terms of days rather than hours - but it should leave you with an idea of what you are dealing with!