Learn how to care for the leopard tortoise
The leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys [Geochelone] pardalis) is a handsome African tortoise that was imported into the United States in fair numbers until March 22, 2000. On that date, importation was banned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture after imported specimens arrived carrying a species of tick known to carry heartwater disease. This disease can affect ruminants, such as deer and cattle, with devastating results, and fear that it would spread to U.S. cattle prompted the tortoise ban by the USDA.
Fortunately, the leopard tortoise was already established in the pet trade by then, and captive-bred animals remain readily available. Whereas wild-caught tortoises may remain quite shy, even after years in captivity, captive-bred specimens are not as reclusive. Plus, leopard tortoises do not have the bullying temperament that is often seen in African spurred (Centrochelys sulcata) and other large tortoises. In other words, a captive-bred leopard tortoise can be an exceptional tortoise pet, and one that can be relatively long lived. Leopard tortoises are reported to live upwards of 60 years or more.
Leopard Tortoise Description
There are two recognized leopard tortoise subspecies: the southern (S. p. pardalis) and the northern (S. p. babcocki). The range of the latter within Africa is Sudan, east to Ethiopia and Somalia, down the eastern side of Africa to the Southern Cape and back up the western side to Angola. Stigmochelys p. pardalis is limited to the southern part of South Africa and Namibia. The two subspecies will readily interbreed if housed together, producing viable offspring.
Leopard tortoises generally inhabit dry grassland areas and are known to occur in low densities throughout their large range. They are considered a food item by many indigenous African people and some populations are vulnerable. Although only two subspecies are recognized, there is a great deal of variability in size, pattern, and even shape within localized populations, with possible undescribed subspecies existing.
Adult leopards are high-domed tortoises that range in length from 10 to 21 inches, and which can weigh up to 45 pounds. Stigmochelys p. babcocki is the most readily available leopard tortoise in the pet trade, with males averaging 10 inches and females 12 to 16 inches. There are reports of exceptionally large specimens from South Africa and Ethiopia that weigh well over 70 pounds.
There is a lot of color variation in leopard tortoises. They typically have a golden carapace covered with black flecking or spots. Each pattern is like a fingerprint and unique to that tortoise. The pardalis subspecies is known to be a darker form, less domed, and grows to a larger size. Hatchlings can be distinguishable from babcocki hatchlings because they typically (not always, however) have two spots per scute, and babcocki hatchlings have one or none.
Choosing a Good Leopard Tortoise
Leopard tortoises can be purchased from a pet store, reptile show, or even on the Internet, but I recommend choosing a tortoise in person to avoid problems. When choosing a leopard tortoise, pick one with a good solid weight and a hard, firm shell, and one that appears strong and alert. You want a tortoise with clear eyes; clear, clean nostrils and a clean vent. Tortoises that are light in weight, or with partially closed or puffy eyes, a thin or damaged shell, nasal discharge or runny stools should be avoided.
Leopard Tortoise Breeding
Leopard tortoises are commonly bred in captivity. Males can be distinguished from females by their longer, thicker tails. Males also develop a concavity to their plastrons, which aids them when mounting a female. Females have shorter tails and do not develop the concave plastrons seen in males. Well-fed males, raised on a healthy diet, mature at around 5 years of age and females at 7 years.
Leopard tortoise females can lay eggs year round. My leopards start breeding here in Arizona in April or May and will breed throughout the year. Females will start laying in August or September and continue until February.
Females typically become restless in the days before they deposit their eggs, and they may pace the enclosure and even dig a few test holes in the days before they actually nest. They will then lay three to five clutches a season, with a clutch laid every four to six weeks. The average clutch size ranges from 12 to 20 eggs. Leopard tortoise eggs left in the ground in Phoenix, Ariz., will hatch out of the ground in August of the following year, usually after a rain. However, to protect the eggs from predators and extreme temperatures, I pull them from the nests and incubate them indoors.
Clutches pulled for incubation require a diapause (a cooling period) before incubation. To provide this, I keep the eggs in a 65-degree wine cooler for one month. They are then removed from the cooler and placed in an incubator at the end of the cooling month, where they typically incubate for four months at 84 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit with a humidity level of 60 percent. Eggs incubated at cooler temperatures will still hatch, but it takes longer.
Incubation takes six to 10 months, with eggs from the same clutch hatching at varying intervals, even months apart. A hatchling pips the egg shell with a caruncle, or egg tooth, at the tip of its nose. Once the egg is pipped, the hatchling will often rest inside for a few hours, to as much as a day, before it pushes its way out of the egg. Once out, it will feed on yolk remaining in its system for a couple of days. Then it will feed on finely shredded greens.
Keeping Hatchling Leopard Tortoises Indoors
Hatchlings can be housed in a 20-gallon “long” terrarium measuring 12 by 12 by 24 inches long. I will keep six fresh hatchlings in a 20 long until they are 2 inches in length, at which point I lower the number to four per enclosure until they measure 4 inches. At 4 inches I either move them to a tub (such as a Waterland tub) or a protected outdoor pen of similar dimensions. Create a hotspot in the indoor hatchling enclosure, as well as a temperature gradient, by positioning an under-tank heater (available in stores that sell pet reptile supplies) and/or a spotlight at one end of the enclosure. During the day, the warmer end should reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit, while the opposite, cooler end should be maintained in the mid-80s. Nighttime temperatures can drop to the mid-70s throughout the enclosure.
Leopard tortoises require vitamin D3 to process and absorb calcium, and this is typically provided by direct exposure to natural sunlight, UVB light and/or dietary supplementation. Hatchlings housed indoors will require a high-quality, full-spectrum UVB light over the enclosure, and it should remain illuminated for 12 to 14 hours a day.
There are many options for substrates for young tortoises kept indoors. Newspaper, Bermuda grass, rabbit pellets and cypress mulch have all been used successfully, but I like peat moss mixed with sand at a 60/40 ratio. Cedar mulches or sand by itself should be avoided.
A lack of humidity can be a contributing cause of pyramiding, a shell deformity that occurs when a tortoise is kept too dry and/or offered an improper diet. I reduce the risk of this disfiguring growth by keeping the peat and sand substrate moistened (not wet) at the warmer end of the enclosure, with a hide positioned over the moist area. This provides additional humidity in a dry climate.
A shallow water dish that allows tortoises to easily climb in and out should be provided. A plastic plant saucer pushed down into the substrate works well. Small petri dishes and other flat saucers can be used, too. I also routinely soak my tortoise hatchlings in a shallow dish of lukewarm water for 20 minutes every couple of days.
It’s important to avoid a constant hot temperature with dry conditions throughout the entire enclosure, as doing so will cause an unfavorable environment for raising hatchlings. Provide a gradient and humidity. Hatchlings will grow on average 2 to 4 inches a year. As mentioned, when mine reach 4 inches they may be moved to a protected outside enclosure. The pen must be protected with screening or other methods, because smaller tortoises are easy targets for dogs, cats, raccoons, opposums, foxes, fire ants and even large birds.
Outdoor Pens for Adults
Leopard tortoises do not dig burrows and instead seek shelter in bushes or low brush. Therefore, they are not as destructive as some of the other larger species of tortoises, making them desirable for landscaped back yards. Because they do not hibernate, however, leopard tortoises do require supplemental heat in the winter when night temperatures drop below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. A cold environment, and especially one that is cold and damp, can be fatal to pet leopard tortoises.
Adults can be housed outside in warmer, drier climates in pens made from concrete blocks, fence panels or staked 14- to 16-inch wood rails. These materials provide a visual barrier and are better suited to a tortoise enclosure than mesh or chain-link fencing, which they may attempt to push through. Avoid including any sandy or rocky areas inside the pen, as leopard tortoises may ingest such substrate while eating, causing impaction. Most keepers of large tortoises feed their tortoises on grassy areas, or they place the food (a diverse salad of chopped greens and vegetables) on large plastic trays.
Leopard tortoises like to wander, so they should be kept in outside pens that are as large as possible, with 12 feet by 12 feet the minimum size for a single adult. A 16- by 20-foot pen can house a trio or four adults. I have kept multi male and female groups of two males and six females with no male fighting issues, but this was in a pen measuring 40 by 40 feet. Still, I have not found male leopards to be big fighters. In fact, I currently house a reverse trio of two pardalis males and one female together with no problems.
Shade trees or bushes can be planted inside the pen to provide cover. Grass should be planted to provide natural browse for the tortoises to eat. Most will drink standing water from a shallow dish or plant saucer. A hide box or shelter can be offered in addition to the shrubbery in their enclosure, and this hide box can be heated with a ceramic or infrared heat bulb or pig blanket when temperatures drop below 60 degrees at night, as well as when daytime temperatures drop below 70 degrees.
The Perfect Foods
I feed our leopard tortoises a high-fiber diet daily. Adult tortoises are allowed to graze on a more natural diet of Bermuda grass and will need less supplemental foods. I offer dried grasses such as timothy hay or a Bermuda grass mix with some alfalfa to both indoor and outdoor tortoises. I feed a variety of supplemental foods including greens such as romaine, dandelions or a high-quality spring mix without spinach. I avoid foods that are high in oxalic acids, such as chard, spinach and rhubarb. Oxalic acids bind with calcium, which prevents the tortoise from absorbing the calcium. I do add vegetables such as zucchini, carrots, bell peppers and squashes. Leopard tortoises also like grape and mulberry tree leaves, as well as Opuntia cactus pads and succulents. I avoid any fruits, citrus or acidic vegetables such as tomatoes. I also do not feed my tortoises canned dog or cat foods and meat.
Greens should be dusted with a high-quality vitamin powder and calcium powder once a week. For hatchlings kept indoors, a calcium powder with D3 should be used. Many tortoise keepers also add cuttlebone to their tortoise enclosures, which the tortoises will chew on, receiving additional calcium in the process. A commercial herbivore tortoise diet can also be offered to supplement your tortoise’s primary diet of grasses.
Possible Health Issues
Good husbandry practices such as those described in this article will help avoid or prevent health issues. Otherwise, some of the following conditions may be experienced.
Leopard tortoises kept in cool, wet climates may suffer from upper respiratory infections. Parasites, such as worms and flagellates, can also present health issues for leopard tortoises. If swollen eyes, a runny nose, runny stool or lack of appetite occurs, a consultation with a good reptile veterinarian is recommended.
Tortoises can also become infected by viruses and bacterial infections. Many can be carriers of viruses long before they exhibit any symptoms. New tortoises should therefore be quarantined away from existing animals for at least 30 to 90 days to prevent exposing them to new viruses.
I recommend not mixing species within a tortoise collection, and having new additions checked by a qualified reptile veterinarian during their quarantine period.
Leopard tortoises are one of the most attractive and appealing tortoises in the reptile-keeping hobby. They have a good temperament and are long lived, and they are a less destructive species that stays a manageable size for most tortoise keepers. If you like tortoises, you’ll love having a leopard tortoise.
JAMES BADMAN maintains an extensive tortoise collection with a focus on the larger tortoise species, as well as Pyxis and Testudo. He has worked at Arizona State University for 13 years, where he is the Assistant Director for the Department of Animal Care and Technologies. He also owns Wildside Pets, an exotic pet store in Mesa, Ariz., co-hosts the Phoenix Reptile Expo, and is an active board member of the Turtle and Tortoise Preservation Group (TTPG).