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Spur-Thigh Tortoises

General Information

The African Spur-Thigh Tortoise (often called the Sulcata Tortoise) is native to the Southern Sahara desert region. It can reach 3-4 feet in length, and weigh up to 240 pounds. Reptile experts claim that these tortoises will live up to 100 years, but many cases have been reported of a sulcata living for up to 150 years.

The Sulcata Tortoise is uniformly a brown- to golden-yellow color. They have well-defined spurs on their rear legs, which give the sulcata its name. Growth rings will appear on each scute (shell section) on the carapace. A sulcata's skin is thick; this may help it retain fluid during dry periods.

Housing Requirements

Don't let pet stores fool you into thinking that this tortoise will grow to the size of its environment like a water turtle. This tortoise is going to get BIG! These are the tortoises you see at Busch Gardens and zoos that children are allowed to ride! So plan ahead.

Once your sulcata is large enough to safely spend time outside (no longer at risk from raccoons, hawks, and other predators), design an enclosure that allows your tortoise enough room to exercise, at least 12' square, with a 6' square grazing area and the other 6' square for basking. If you live in a warm enough climate, build your enclosure outside--but make sure to sink your fencing at least two feet underground. These tortoises like to dig.

Tortoises will dig burrows where they can rest in safe comfort during the day. Unlike gophers, these burrows will only have one entry/exit hole--unless there is a cave-in somewhere along its tunnel. If this happens, the tortoise will dig a new exit hole to escape. To make sure your tortoise doesn't dig out of your yard, build a cage-inside-a-cage; that is, build your 12' square enclosure in the center of your fenced yard, and leave a wide safety margin between it and your fence. That way, if your tortoise digs out of the inner enclosure, it will still be safely enclosed in your yard. Click on the diagram for a larger view.

If your tortoise is being kept inside, provide a deep substrate mixture of sterile playground sand and organic soil for its burrows. A mixture of potting soil and coconut bark can also be used. Avoid pine, cedar, or oyster shell substrates, as these can be harmful or toxic to your tortoise. Clean your enclosure every day, especially if your tortoise uses its water bowl or pool as a toilet.

Since tortoises like to soak at least twice a week, you may want to bury a child's wading pool in your yard, and build a ramp for your tortoise to climb down in at its leisure. The ambient temperature in its enclosure should be between 72 - 85º F during the day, with a basking area at 85 - 89º F. At night, the temperature should drop no lower than 70º F. If it does, be sure to bring your tortoise inside.

Adequate UVA and UVB lighting is crucial for proper skeletal and shell development. If your tortoise is housed outside, it will receive these important nutrients through unfiltered sunlight. If your tortoise is inside, you must provide it with the proper incandescent lighting. ZooMed's PowerSun bulb is a perfect example of proper lighting, as it provides the necessary UVA, UVB, and high heat all in one bulb, eliminating the need for multiple light fixtures. Avoid heat rocks, as these can cause severe burns to a tortoise's shell and legs.

Since the sulcata comes from a desert region, it requires a dry, arid enclosure. Be sure to provide your tortoise with a sufficiently large hiding box where it can hide from the bright sun, especially if no burrowing is possible.


Sulcatas are grazers. They need high-fiber, low-protein food such as mixed grasses, orchard hay, timothy hay, hibiscus leaves and flowers, clover, prickly pear pads, dandelion greens and flowers, Dutch clover, rose leaves and petals, and sow thistle. Greens such as mustard, turnip, and collard leaves can be substituted when natural grasses and leaves are not available. Mulberry and grape leaves should be fed in limited quantities. Avoid animal protein and lettuce entirely, and feed fresh fruits sparingly.

The best possible food for a sulcata is grass native to Africa. Several websites offer African grass seed at a low cost. Simply sow it in large plats, or even in your sulcata's indoor tank...water it...and the grass will quickly grow. http://www.sulcatafood.com is where this author buys native grass seed for her son's sulcata, Mischa.

Sulcatas live for many years, can learn to recognize their names, and can be trained to come when they're called. Often nicknamed "heirloom pets," these intelligent tortoises can provide a lifetime of pleasure for you and your entire family.

Baby sulcata (spur-thigh) tortoise on mulched substrate
Baby Sulcata
Adult sulcata (spur-thigh) tortoise giving a child a ride in the yard
Adult Sulcata
(“Hey, kid! Do I look
like a pony to you??”)
Adult sulcata (spur-thigh) tortoises grazing in the yard
Adult Sulcatas