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Hinge-Back Tortoises

General Information

The Bell's Hinge-Back Tortoise is one of the most common tortoise species available. It is a moderately small African tortoise. Adults measure about 9" in diameter, and weigh up to 4½ pounds. Their native habitats are the African savannahs and grasslands. Because these areas are subject to rather dramatic seasonal changes, many hinge-backs become inactive during the cool winter months.

A healthy hinge-back should feel heavy and solid. A light or hollow shell may indicate dehydration or malnourishment. Its eyes should be open and clear, or should open within several seconds of initial handling. The nostrils should also be clear. If possible, open the tortoise's mouth, and check its tongue and palate for signs of infection. Hinge-backs may be very shy, so use patience when inspecting its head and legs for possible injuries.


Tortoises do everything slowly. Unfortunately, this can include becoming comfortable with their new surroundings. It may take weeks or even months before your hinge-back is fully established in its new habitat. Be patient! Hinge-backs are initially very reclusive, but they are intelligent and affectionate animals that will eventually respond to your caring.

Glass tanks work well as an initial container. But think ahead! Your cute little tortoise is going to grow. Make sure its new home is at least four times as long, and twice as wide, as its eventual adult size. If properly cleaned and maintained, a 30-gallon tank will usually suffice for your hinge-back's entire life.

Tortoises are ground-huggers. So keeping your substrate clean is essential, otherwise your tortoise will smear feces all around the tank. Newspaper or paper towels make a practical substrate. Utility carpeting is another low-cost, practical solution. Shredded coconut bark is easy to maintain, and will not turn moldy when moistened.

In nature, tortoises receive heat and UVA/UVB from the sun. And they like it hot, between 85 - 90º F during the day and 75 - 80º at night. Provide heat by using overhead heat lamps with UVB bulbs or ceramic heating elements, or undertank heating pads. Some tortoises enjoy basking, while others avoid direct sunlight, so you may have to experiment to see which your tortoise prefers. Avoid heat rocks--they have no thermostat controls, so they can burn a tortoise's belly. This can be fatal.

Hinge-backs prefer high humidity, between 60% - 90%. Maintain your tortoise's humidity by misting its tank several times daily, or covering most of its tank with plastic sheeting. (Remember to leave adequate openings for heat lamps and ventilation.)

In nature, hinge-backs eat both plants and insects. Fruits such as strawberries and cantaloupe are often popular foods. Other tasty fruits and vegetables include tomatoes, bananas, mangos, green beans, raspberries, and blueberries. High-calcium leaves such as dandelion, clover, escarole, chicory, kale, turnip greens, mustard greens, and collard greens are a necessary part of their diet. Fresh grass clippings, alfalfa, or timothy hay (be sure to avoid pesticides!) add important fiber. You can supplement this leafy diet with insects such as snails, crickets, earthworms, and other small invertebrates. Note: While your tortoise is acclimating to its new environment, leave it alone to eat. It will retreat from its food or water dish if it feels it's being observed.

Provide your tortoise with a large, shallow water bowl. Tortoises enjoy immersing themselves in water, but they will often use the bowl for a toilet. So make sure the water bowl is always kept clean.

Permanent Housing

Once your tortoise feels comfortable in its new surroundings, customize its enclosure by adding bark mulch and plants. Tortoises seem to enjoy burrowing, and bark mulch is visually appealing. Pothos plants are a safe, pleasing addition which help retain humidity. Make sure to keep your tortoise's food and water bowls away from the mulch substrate, so that it doesn't accidentally ingest mulch with its food.

If possible, design an outdoor enclosure for your hinge-back. Keep in mind that these tortoises are excellent climbers and burrowers. Plan your enclosure accordingly, with tall half-buried outer barriers that they can neither climb over nor dig beneath. They are most active at dawn and dusk, and retreat to shady areas during the day.

Hinge-back tortoises can live for many years. They are very intelligent, and can learn to recognize their names and respond to simple commands. With care, patience, and training, your tortoise can become a loyal lifelong companion.

Hinge-Back Tortoise
Anterior view of a mature hinge-back tortoise
Hinge-Back Tortoise