Jana worked in animal welfare with abused and unwanted pets. She loves sharing her hands-on experience regarding domestic and wild critters.
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 identify by 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. 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. However, 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, like black, yellow, gray, and some mottling, will 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; 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. In the case of confusion, it's 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 that 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!
- Tortoise Trust Web - Common diseases
Tortoise Trust Web - A site dedicated to the conservation and captive care of Chelonia
- Leopard Tortoise Care Sheet
Questions & Answers
Question: Can a female leopard tortoise sometimes have a bit of a longer tail?
Answer: Yes, she can. However, never so long as to make it impossible to tell her gender apart from a male. When you have a tortoise with a stubby tail, even if it's a bit longer than normal, it could still be a female. But males always have a tail long enough to fold away, not something a female should be able to do. A male's tail is also very slender, while the female's is thick and short.
© 2017 Jana Louise Smit
Myrna Johnson on August 21, 2020:
I am so pleased that I can determine the sex of my tortoise, and its a Boy! I stuck with the name Poo tortoise because, he was so little when i got him. The photo,s up above confirmed it for for sure.
Question: Why do they hid and sleep so much? Is this normal? And do they graze on hay and grass? Last one Do they know there owner? By what sight, voice, ect...
Alexander James Guckenberger from Maryland, United States of America on July 01, 2019:
I feel like one finds the genders eventually if there are enough of them. My uncle's Mom has some exotic tortoises living with her, and they are very active with their partners (even when they're older). I might refer back to this article if I get some land after I have my B.A. and more money.
Jana Louise Smit (author) from South Africa on May 17, 2017:
I would love to have a herd of Sulcatas! You really proved one point with the story about yours and the lawn mower - they've got personality. By the way, I love that story. :) Large species tortoises such as Sulcatas are simply gorgeous. In my country (South Africa) our laws are very strict, though. It's rare to see pet shops selling torts and it's hard to obtain a permit to keep these reptiles. That causes a huge underground owner situation where the animals are taken from the wild. If you are found with tortoises/turtles and you don't have a permit, there are heavy fines involved and somtimes jail time. The animals are confiscated. I worked in animal welfare and the main issue I encountered with sick reptiles such as these, or confiscated ones, was that the owner was too scared to seek vet treatment for an illegal animal. Think prison. So, I personally wish the laws would relax enough for people who love torts to obtain them as rescues or captive bred babies but right now even those are slapped with enough red tape to form a ball as big as a planet. Seriously, you made my day with your lawnmover chasing Sulcata. :)
The Logician from now on on May 17, 2017:
When it comes to tortoises I especially like Sulcatas. You probably know they get huge though (100 lbs.). The babies are sold in pet shops and in captivity they grow two or three times faster than in their natural desert habitat because there food is only available during the rainy season. They quickly get too big for their owners who then need to get rid of them, consequently nationwide there are so many unwanted adult Sulcatas you can't give them away! People try to sell them for as much as $1000 but I doubt they ever get those prices. People often just release them in the wild. Animal control here tells me they find one or two a year and nobody claims them. Zoos and rescues won't take them anymore. So if you look hard enough especially in states with cold winters and you have about an acre enclosed for them to graze on in a hotter state you can have a little herd of these animals like horses in a field. And they can be very friendly. Mine is attracted to my riding lawnmower, I don't know why, maybe she thinks it's a hulk of a tortoise but she will chase me on it everywhere I mow. Maybe she doesn't like the noise, or maybe she does like the noise. She once got out and chased down my neighbor when he was mowing his lawn. He just rode over to my house and she followed him home. If you have the warm climate and a field for them to graze on they are really fun to have around. You can bring them inside for the winter if you have a room to accommodate them or a heated shed will suffice.
Jana Louise Smit (author) from South Africa on May 16, 2017:
Hello, tsadjatko! I'm also familiar with the South African angulate tortoise. These reptiles are very interesting, there I agree 100%. :)
The Logician from now on on May 16, 2017:
Well done Hub Page Jana. What other tortoise's or turtles are you into? I think they are the most interesting of reptiles.