Everything You Need to Know About Raising a Sulcata Tortoise
A Sulcata Tortoise Is a Lifetime Commitment
Owning a sulcata tortoise (also known as an African spurred tortoise or Geochelone sulcata) is not for everyone. To the uninformed buyer, sulcata tortoises appear to be tiny, adorable tank turtles; little do they realize that within several years, with proper care, they will grow to be the size of a large dog. Worse, without proper care, they can die.
Don't get me wrong. Sulcata tortoises can be great pets. However, there is way more work involved in raising these special animals than first meets the eye. People should do their research and make informed decisions about whether raising one is right for their family.
Do you know what a Sulcata Tortoise Is?
What Exactly Is a Sulcata Tortoise?
The African sulcata tortoise got its name from the Latin sulcus, which means furrow. The name describes the deep grooves on the scutes (the plates of the shell) of the tortoise. Sulcatas are native to the Sahara desert.
Sulcatas have sandy, ivory, or golden yellow-brown skin and two or more very large and prominent tubercles (or spurs) on the rear legs. On the carapace (top shell), each scute or plate is tan to yellow at the center and outlined by brown growth rings. The plastron (bottom shell) is light tan to yellow.
The skin of an African sulcata is very thick and the legs are covered in dull, spiney projections. The thick skin and spines are intended for protection from predators, but also work as insulation, keeping the tortoise cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. The prominent spurs on the rear legs serve no observable function according to scientists but, from my own personal experience, they wag when they are happy like a dog's tail.
Sulcatas are the third largest breed of tortoise in the world, surpassed in size by the giant tortoises of the Galapagos Islands and Seychelles. Not only do sulcatas grow very large, they grow very rapidly — up to two and a half feet long and 80-110 pounds or more in 5 to 10 years. On average, they grow to be 36 inches and can weigh as much as 150 pounds at its largest maturation. The oldest sulcata recorded lived to be just over 80 years old.
Is Owning a Tortoise Right For You?
My largest sulcata is 12 years old, just over two feet long, weighs 110 pounds, and stands one foot high. From spring to fall, she eats about 30 pounds of fruit and vegetables per week (give or take a few pounds) and keeps my lawn perfectly mowed and free of weeds. Every tree is pruned perfectly from the ground up to about 1-1/2 feet high, due to her constant grazing. Needless to say, she is healthy and has a healthy appetite.
But how much money does this actually equate to each week, month, and year? Well, it's about $40 per week, $160 per month, and a staggering $1920 per year, give or take. I justify it by telling myself I save that on lawn maintenance per year. :)
Owning a sulcata can be a lot of work and makes quite the dent in your pocketbook. But they are well worth the investment, as they can be lifelong friends.
Setting up the Perfect Baby Terrarium
It is fairly easy to set up an indoor space for your tortoise. Some people choose a tank, while others prefer an old table modified into an open air cage. Both are suitable and have their pros and cons.
As babies, they need a cage that is 12-18 inches deep. You do not want your tortoise to escape, and they will try sometimes. Keep this in mind when selecting the initial enclosure.
Adults Need Large Outdoor Environments
Housing an adult is definitely easier than housing a baby. However, there are a number of things to consider. Your tortoise is going to grow into its habitat. You can expect it to double its size within the first month outside. You also need to consider that the tortoise is going to burrow. You want to make sure that your yard is secure and that your tortoise does not dig its way out of your yard.
For detailed information, check out my other article: Building an Outside Habitat for an Adult Sulcata. Also please keep in mind that they cannot survive in snow.
Do Tortoises Make Noise?
Sulcatas don't really bark, but they do have a small voice. When provoked, scared, or startled, they will hiss loudly, and the bigger the tortoise, the larger the hiss. Tortoises do not have teeth but I can guarantee that you would not want to get bit by one. They have a beak-like mouth with ridges that are incredibly sharp, and the larger they get, the larger and thicker the ridges on the beak get. My full grown sulcata could take off one of my fingers if it wanted to. But they are peaceful and herbivorous, so they wouldn't really enjoy doing it.