The Tortoise Club

The African Spurred Tortoise (Centrochelys sulcata), also called the sulcata tortoise, is a species of tortoise found on the southern base of the Sahara Desert and is the third-largest species of tortoise in the world. The term sulcata is Latin for “sculpted” and “the furrowed,” which properly describes their amazing features.

Sulcatas have become increasingly popular as pets in the United States, so much so that there are now more sulcatas in the United States than in their native home in Africa.  While their popularity is impressive, it does not mean that these tortoises are easy to care for or are ideal for everyone. The sulcata tortoise is one of two tortoises that make up the African desert species, with the leopard tortoise being the second. The natural ranges of these two species do not overlap in the wild, though their care in captivity is very similar. With its tan color shell, pronounced spurs on the front legs, and enormous size in adulthood, the sulcata tortoise is quite distinguishable from other species. The only two species that grow larger than the sulcata are the aldabra and galapagos tortoises.


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The step-by-step guide for caring for a Sulcata Tortoise.

Proper Diet

Sulcatas are strict herbivores and require a high fiber, low protein diet in order to thrive. This diet should consist of 80 – 90% herbicide- and pesticide-free grasses and hay and the remaining should be a wide variety of other weeds and acceptable greens. Feeding an improper diet to a sulcata can lead to various health issues, such as Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD), liver & kidney problems, impaired growth, and a weakened immune system. 

Grass is overall the best primary food source for sulcatas and should be available to your tortoise at all times. Hay is also a great option to feed on a regular basis. Timothy and orchard hay are popular hays used by tortoise owners and are readily available in bales and 16-90oz bags. For young tortoises, orchard hay/grass is very popular because it is much softer and grassier than most hays and much more palatable for a hatchling or yearling. 

Grass and hay provide the necessary fiber content of their diet but lack other needed nutrients, notably calcium. We recommend supplementing their diet 2-3x per week with calcium-rich foods, such as opuntia cactus pads, dandelion greens, and escarole, among others. Do not over-supplement calcium, as this can cause uroliths (bladder stones).

Check out our free Plant Database of over 200 plant species and their recommended feeding. 

Heat & Lighting

Sulcatas require both heat and ultraviolet light (UVB) for proper metabolism and growth. Tortoises are ectothermic, or cold blooded, meaning they do not have the ability to produce their own body heat the way that mammals do. They are also crepuscular animals, which means they are more active during sunrise and sunset when temperatures are not too hot or too cold.

A successful captive environment should provide thermal gradients, or “temperature zones,” which allow them to self-regulate their body temperature. In their natural habitat, they will dig burrows and frequently move in and out of shade to protect themselves from extreme heat and cold. If temperatures are too low, it will cause the tortoise’s metabolism to slow down, resulting in lack of appetite and sickness.

You will need a combination of heat and light sources in order to provide the proper environment. Save the care sheet provided here for recommendations on bulbs, wattages, and schedules. Always make sure the wattage rating for the bulb is correct for the wattage rating of the lamp. 

Humidity is another important factor for proper hydration and shell growth. However, without proper heat, excessive humidity can lead to an Upper Respiratory Infection (URI), which can be dangerous and even fatal. 

Below are recommendations for heat and humidity in different sections of an enclosure, as well as a sample enclosure map 


Substrate is the material that fills the enclosure for the tortoise to walk on. While there are dozens of types of substrates, you will want to use one that is organic and does not contain rocks, sticks, plastic, and other obstructions. There are three commonly accepted substrates; organic top soil, sphagnum moss, and coco coir (coconut fiber). Depending on the size of your tortoise and the amount needed, using 100% organic top soil may be the most cost effective option.

Coco coir is a very common substrate, particularly for younger tortoises, because it helps keep proper humidity. However, this substrate requires frequent hydration and turning, as it dries out very quickly. Additionally, it can cause issues with impaction if the tortoise is ingesting it, either directly or with its food after walking on it. Pay close attention to this and replace with an organic substrate if needed.

Sphagnum moss is also a great addition to the enclosure as it holds moisture very well. You can mix it with the substrate, leave it on top, or inside the hide. Most sphagnum moss is organic, so it is ok if the tortoise eats a bit of it, however, it should not be eaten in excess. 

See the care sheet provided for recommended brands of top soil and substrate. 

Water & Soaking

Hydration is critical part of caring for tortoises and contrary to what some may think, they need access to clean water at all times. Dehydration is one of the most common issues that leads to sickness, or even death. Many people think that tortoises do not drink water and that they consume their moisture through their food, which is not entirely true. There are three primary ways that tortoises receive hydration; drinking, eating foods with high water content, and soaking.

Although you will not see it every day, tortoises will drink water from a dish or puddle, so you will want to ensure their water sources are cleaned as needed. This may require replacing at least 3-5 times each day for smaller tortoises, as they love to walk over their water bowl and often sit inside. The same is true for larger tortoises as well. This is normal behavior and should not be prevented. A terra cotta pot base is a proper water dish for a young tortoise as it is shallow enough that the tortoise is not at risk to drown if they accidentally flip themselves over.

Hatchlings under one year should be soaked daily, while tortoises over one year should be soaked 2-4x per week. Older tortoises should be given a water source that they can get in and out of and allows them to self-soak. 

Providing Shade

Tortoises are crepuscular animals, meaning they are most active during dusk and dawn hours when the temperature is not too hot. During peak- heat hours, tortoises will spend their time in deep burrows that are cooler and humid. Without access to proper shade, a tortoise can quickly overheat and become dehydrated, which can be life threatening. All tortoises need access to shade to move in and out of at all times. If a tortoise is overheating, take them to shade and place them in a luke-warm soak immediately.


Deep shade is shade without the presence of any light and can be achieved by providing multiple shade sources in the same area. Imagine a deep, humid burrow that is impenetrable by sun rays. Do not underestimate a tortoise’s need for shade, nor their desire to spend a large portion of their time there. Up to 30% of their enclosure should be shaded, A tortoise table, whether placed inside or outside, should have a covered section with a solid top and wall separating it from the rest of the enclosure. An outdoor enclosure should still provide an enclosed space, such as a barn or an insulated house pictured here