Sulcata Tortoise Care

Sulcata tortoises (also called African spurred tortoises) can make great pets for advanced reptile owners prepared for a long-term commitment. Sulcata tortoises can be quite docile, and as a grassland species, they don’t require as much specialty care as some other reptiles, like chameleons. Keep reading to find out more about how to keep your sulcata tortoise happy and healthy!

Terrarium

Terrarium choices are numerous these days, but they’re not all created equal! If you have a hatchling or juvenile sulcata tortoise, it may be tempting to purchase a larger terrarium now for him or her to grow into, but this actually isn’t the best choice for your pet. Tortoises are naturally prey animals, meaning that in the wild they would be a meal for other larger animals. Under human care, this means that large open spaces tend to make them uncomfortable because there’s just more space for potential predators to be lying in wait. Additionally, it’s important that any sulcata tortoise owner understands that these tortoises can’t be kept in indoor habitats forever. As adults, they get very large (as in a couple hundred pounds!), so make sure you’ll be able to accommodate a permanent outdoor enclosure for your tortoise when they reach this age. So make sure to get the right size terrarium for your tortoise’s age and size:

  • Hatchling: 10-20 gallon terrarium
  • Juvenile: 40 gallon terrarium
  • Sub-adult/Adult: Permanent outdoor enclosure

For hatchling and juvenile sulcata tortoises, we recommend using a reptile carpet substrate; these are very easy to clean by hand in the sink or by tossing in the washing machine! Juveniles can also be provided a mulch substrate.

Make sure to supply your tortoise with an adequately sized hiding space (so they can enter and exit easily and are able to turn around). This is easily done by using a “reptile hut,” of which there are many variations available.

The remaining recommendations are in regards to hatchling and juvenile sulcata tortoises that are kept in indoor terrariums.

If you have questions about caring for an adult sulcata tortoise, contact us!

Heat

Heat should be a main focus when caring for your sulcata tortoise. These tortoises are native to African grasslands with warmer temperatures and some direct sun exposure. Even though your sulcata tortoise isn’t living in an African grassland, that’s what his or her body is adapted for. And we mean their entire body. Even how well they’re able to digest their food is affected by their heat exposure! Therefore, it’s important to replicate this environment to the best of our ability. Here’s how to do this at home:

  • Provide an appropriate size heat bulb for your sulcata tortoise. In very general terms, you will need a smaller size (lower wattage) heat bulb for tropical species and smaller terrariums, and a larger size (higher wattage) heat bulb for desert species and larger terrariums. However, what is considered a “small” or “large” terrarium can be relevant, so check in with The Repstylist if you have questions about providing the right heat bulb!
  • Provide the appropriate type of heat bulb for your sulcata tortoise and their habitat; we recommend starting with a basking spot lamp. Heat bulbs can be light-emitting or non light-emitting, infrared, halogen, basking, and more (read more about the different type of heat bulbs here).
  • Provide a temperature gradient along your tortoise’s terrarium. This means having a cooler side and a warmer side, which will allow your tortoise areas to cool off or warm up (they know when they need to do either). You can create a temperature gradient by placing the heat bulb (lamp) on one end of the terrarium. As tempting as it may be, avoid placing the heat bulb in the middle of the terrarium.
  • Measure temperature at the floor of the terrarium on both the warm and cool sides (read about how to properly measure temperature here).
  • Consider that you may need to raise the heat bulb in order to obtain the right temperatures. You can do this by using a lamp stand.
Illustration of proper heat and UVB source placement to create a gradient. Colors illustrate decreasing heat and UVI as you move away from the sources. Illustration courtesy of The Repstylist. All Rights Reserved.

UVB

UVA, UVB, and UVI are also very important, particularly from a safety standpoint. And, they each refer to something different. Ultraviolet-A (UVA) refers to light wavelengths that allow reptiles (and us) to use our vision and see things. Ultraviolet-B (UVB) refers to light wavelengths that penetrate the skin of reptiles and activate vitamin D within their body. And the ultraviolet index (UVI) is a measurement of UVB wavelengths that contribute to vitamin D synthesis (note that not all UVB wavelengths are involved with vitamin D synthesis!). So what exactly do you need to supply for your sulcata tortoise?

  • Provide a UVB bulb of appropriate strength for your tortoise’s terrarium size. UVB bulbs typically come in “5.0” and “10.0” strengths. These numbers refer to the amount of UVB output that will contribute to vitamin D synthesis for your tortoise (either 5% or 10% of the UVB wavelength output). The 5.0 bulbs tend to work best for smaller terrariums and tropical species, while the 10.0 bulbs tend to work best for larger terrariums and desert species. However, what is considered a “small” or “large” terrarium can be relevant, so check in with The Repstylist if you have questions about providing the right UVB bulb!
  • Provide a UVB gradient along your tortoise’s terrarium. Much like a temperature gradient, this means having one side of the terrarium with little-to-no UVB exposure and the other side with high UVB exposure. To do this, place the UVB bulb on the SAME side of the terrarium as the main heat source. In nature, UVB and heat both come from the sun, which means when setting up your tortoise’s terrarium, these sources should be together (imitating sun exposure).
  • Measure UVI of the bulb you’ve chosen. UVI is a much more useful measurement of UVB, as too much or too little UVB can be very harmful to your tortoise. Each reptile species has a UVI value (or tight range of values) that is ideal. Measuring UVI will make sure your tortoise is getting the right amount of UVB exposure. Be aware that you can measure UVB separate from UVI (and there are separate meters for these), but a strict UVB measurement will NOT tell you how much vitamin D-synthesizing UVB your pet is receiving. Make sure to measure at the floor of the terrarium on the warmer and cooler sides (read about how to properly measure UVB here).
  • Consider that you may need to raise the UVB bulb in order to obtain the right UVI and temperature. You can do this by using a lamp stand.

Light Cycle

The light cycle isn’t often talked about, but it can have a huge impact on your sulcata tortoise’s behavior. Just like you and I follow the sun’s direction (we’re awake when the sun is up and asleep when the sun is down), so does your tortoise. All animals have a circadian rhythm and 24-hour cycle (even nocturnal animals, but it’s reversed for them), helping them know when they should be awake, sleeping, foraging, hunting, eating, basking, and more. Here’s how to set up a light cycle:

  • Only use white or yellow-light heat bulbs and UVB bulbs during the day.
  • Create a light cycle by turning the above lights on at the same time each morning and off at the same time each evening.
  • If you need to provide heat during the night, consider non-light emitting options such as ceramic heat emitters and heat pads, or red-light heat bulbs. Contrary to popular belief, reptiles can see red light but it doesn’t affect their light cycle. Red-light heat bulbs can create an enjoyable nighttime viewing ability for you.
  • Follow the time changes that we experience and adjust your tortoise’s light cycle accordingly. This means you should create a shortened “day” during the fall/winter months and a longer “day” during the spring/summer months.
  • Timers are an excellent way to easily create a regularly scheduled light cycle.
Photo courtesy of Radovan Zierik via Pexels.

Humidity

Humidity is not a great concern when it comes to sulcata tortoise husbandry. Since sulcata tortoises are adapted for a dry, grassland environment, it’s not necessary to create/supply humidity for your sulcata tortoise. That being said, it can be beneficial to periodically mist and/or soak your tortoisee in a tub of shallow water to hydrate their skin, allow them a different opportunity to drink, and to provide enrichment. Additionally, sulcata tortoises are not able to handle high humidity (this can cause adverse health effects, like respiratory infections), so make sure your tortoise’s terrarium isn’t too humid by using an appropriate size water dish and not over-misting.

Diet

Sulcata tortoises are herbivores, doing best on a low protein, high fiber plant diet. Diet doesn’t have to be a one-size-fits-all approach for sulcata tortoises; there are multiple diet options that all work well if used correctly. Things to consider when choosing a diet:

  • A water dish is a necessity for most reptiles! With the exception of chameleons, reptiles should always have a dish of fresh water available. Some will drink it, some will bathe in it, and some will lay along the rim. All of these are natural behaviors that should be encouraged.
  • When choosing produce, make sure to “feed a rainbow,” choosing produce of all different colors to make sure you’re supplying all of the necessary vitamins and minerals.
  • Pelleted diets can be great! They can supply all of the macro- and micro-nutrients required by your tortoise in one food. But not all pellets are the same. Check out our post on how to read and understand commercial food product labels to make sure you’re giving your tortoise the best! Additionally, if you haven’t been using a pelleted food and are considering adding it, check out our posts on how to properly add a food item or change your tortoise’s food and what to do if your tortoise doesn’t take to it.
  • Mixing pellets and produce is a great way to supply a plethora of nutrients and a variety of piece sizes and textures!
  • Sulcata tortoises also enjoy grazing on grass. If you have a lawn, you can let your tortoise spend some time roaming and munching on it. Just be sure your lawn isn’t treated with any chemicals (weed killers, pesticides, etc.) and that you don’t have any unsafe plants in reach of your tortoise.
Pre-mixed salads make great herbivorous and omnivorous reptile food! Photo courtesy of The Repstylist. All Rights Reserved.

Want to know the ideal temperatures, UVI, appropriate produce items, and more for sulcata tortoises? Check out the “Sulcata Tortoise Care” magnet on our online store. Taking care of any living creature is a huge responsibility, but it’s also very fun and rewarding! Take the guess work out of caring for your scaly friend by having our handy magnet nearby!

The Repstylist. All Rights Reserved.

As always, if you have questions about this topic, contact us here or at therepstylist@gmail.com!

©Copyright 2020 The Repstylist. All Rights Reserved.

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