The African spurred tortoise or sulcata tortoise is the third largest species of tortoise on Earth (after the Galapagos giant tortoise and Aldabra giant tortoise) and the largest to live on the mainland of a continent as opposed to an island.
As a tortoise they are most noticeable for the large dome shaped shell that covers their back. This oval shaped shell is typically sand colored. They can retract their head back in to this shell. They are able to feel pressure and pain through the shell.
On the forelimbs their scales overlap and there are 2-3 spurs on each forelimb from which their name comes.
Males are usually larger than females. They can measure up to 80cm (31.5in) and weigh 100kg (220lbs). Females measure up to 50cm (19.7in) and weigh 60kg (132lbs).
African spurred tortoises are herbivores. They feed on a range of grasses, flowers, cacti and weeds. They have a low metabolism and as such need little food to sustain them.
They can survive with little water though when they do drink they may consume up to 15% of their body weight in a single session.
Male 100kg (220lbs)
Female 60kg (132lbs)
Male 80cm (31.5in)
Female 50cm (19.7in)
Up to 100 years
Africa is the native home of the African spurred tortoise. Here they can be found on the edge of the Sahara in Chad, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, South Sudan and Sudan. Populations may also exist in Somalia or Niger though this is not confirmed.
They make their home in the Sahara desert, scrub, grasslands and savanna.
To ensure their survival in the desert they will dig an underground burrow where they can spend the warmest parts of the day. Their burrow may measure as much as 3m (10ft) deep. A range of other animals will also use abandoned tortoise burrows making them an important part of the ecosystem.
Mating takes place primarily between September and October though can may occur anytime from June to March.
Throughout the breeding season the males are incredibly aggressive and spend time ramming one another in an attempt to knock their opponent on to their back.
During breeding they are highly vocal and will grunt, croak and whistle.
The successful male will mate with the female. Prior to mating he walks around her in a circle and may ram her with his shell.
Following a successful mating the female reduces her food intake until she lays her eggs. These eggs are laid in the ground in a hole dug up to 14cm (5.5i) deep. Females have been seen to dig multiple nests before she finally lays her eggs.
In to her nest the white, spherical eggs are deposited. Each clutch may include 15-30 eggs. The nest is then covered with sand and the eggs are left to incubate for 8 months.
At hatching the young tortoises are colored yellow or tan with their shell having rounded, serrated edges. The hatchlings measure only 2-3in (5-7.6in) long.
From hatching the young tortoises are already aggressive towards their siblings and may attempt to flip them over.
It may take up to 15 years for sexual maturity to be reached.
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Most of their activity takes place at dawn and dusk. They avoid going out during the heat of the day as flipping on to their back at this time can lead to a quick death due to overheating.
Predators and Threats
The African spurred tortoise has few natural predators owing to the ability to retract their head and feet in to the shell.
Humans affect their population through collection for the pet trade. They are a popular pet due to their small size when young though are often abandoned as an adult when they grow too large. Due to the long period taken to reach maturity this over-collection will take a long period of time to naturally resolve.
They are also affected by destruction of their habitat and overgrazing by introduced livestock.
The African spurred tortoise is also known as the sulcata tortoise.
Turtles and tortoises are an ancient group of reptiles which have been on Earth for 220 million years.
Their name ‘sulcata’ comes from the Latin word for “furrow” which the tortoises have between each scute on their back.
Some communities in Africa see the African spurred tortoise as a link between their leader and the gods and keep one in their village for this purpose.
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Oregon Zoo. 2020. African Spurred Tortoise. [online] Available at: <https://www.oregonzoo.org/discover/animals/african-spurred-tortoise> [Accessed 26 July 2020].
Baltimore, T., 2020. Sulcata Tortoise | The Maryland Zoo. [online] The Maryland Zoo. Available at: <https://www.marylandzoo.org/animal/sulcata-tortoise/> [Accessed 26 July 2020].
Folly Farm. 2020. African Spurred Tortoise – Fun Facts And Information For Kids. [online] Available at: <https://www.folly-farm.co.uk/zoo/meet-the-zoo-animals/african-spurred-tortoise/> [Accessed 26 July 2020].
Harrold, A. 2001. “Geochelone sulcata” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed July 25, 2020 at https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Geochelone_sulcata/
Tortoise & Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group. 1996. Centrochelys sulcata. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 1996: e.T163423A5605057. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.1996.RLTS.T163423A5605057.en. Downloaded on 26 July 2020.
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