Pancake tortoises are 1 of 53 tortoise species that inhabit Africa (where they reach their greatest diversity), North America (where 4 species reside), Europe, South America and Asia. Terrestrial and largely vegetarian, tortoises range in size from the Aldabra tortoise, Geochelone gigantea, whose carapace approaches 5 feet in length, to the speckled tortoise, Homopus signatus, which is fully grown at 4 inches.
Pancake tortoises, the sole member of their genus, possess a carapace (upper shell) that is flat or even sway-backed, and so flexible - a result of gaps between the rigid, bony plates - that it can easily be squeezed between thumb and forefinger. Colored yellow-tan with dark rings, the shell provides excellent camouflage. The limbs and tail are brown, tan or yellow-tan in color. Pancake tortoises reach 6-7 inches in length yet are merely 1-1 ½ inches in “height”. Their flattened profile strains our conception of what a tortoise “should look like” – one that came under my care was found wandering about Jamaica Bay Refuge in NYC (a released pet). A park visitor had rushed it to the ranger’s station - distraught over the plight of the animal, which he believed, understandably, to have survived being run over by a car!
This tortoise’s uniqueness does not end with its appearance - when threatened, it runs off in a most “un-tortoise-like” fashion and wedges itself deep within a rock crevice or below a boulder. The flatness and light weight of the shell and the highly flexible legs assist in this endeavor. Once within a crevice, the tortoise rotates its powerful forelegs outward to lock itself in place. It has recently been discovered that a flexible, diamond-shaped area on the plastron (lower shell) also rotates outward when the legs are withdrawn, rendering the animal even more immobile. Even this ingenious defense is not, however, foolproof – a species of hawk with very long legs has been observed lying on its side, snatching tortoises from within their shelters.
Individuals rarely forage far from a favored retreat, and return un-erringly to specific rock fissures when displaced. Amazingly acrobatic, they can even climb vertical rock crevices by utilizing a maneuver similar to that known as the “chimney climb” among human rock-climbers - the carapace and legs are wedged against opposite sides of the crevice and, maintaining constant pressure, the tortoise inches its way upward.
Pancake tortoises are found only in southern Kenya and northern and eastern Tanzania, including within Serengeti National Park. Limited to rock outcroppings (kopjes) and rock ledges on savannas in areas of arid scrub and thorn-brush, they rarely cross open land. Therefore, the populations (which are quite dense, for a tortoise) near each kopje are more or less reproductively isolated, and local extinctions are easily caused by over-collecting. They forage for dry and growing grasses, leaves, succulents and seeds in the early morning, late afternoon and evening, and shelter in deep rock crevices during the heat of mid-day. Some populations aestivate during January and February, the hottest times of the year.
Pancake Tortoises In Captivity
Pancake tortoises make fine pets, but extreme care should be taken to assure that you are buying captive bred animals. Over-collection for the pet trade has decimated their numbers, and their low reproductive potential and limited natural range puts the species at additional risk. They are classified as “Vulnerable” by the IUCN and listed on CITES Appendix II (under consideration for inclusion under Appendix I).
I have found that these tortoises, and others native to arid habitats, do well on a substrate of crushed oyster shell. Oyster shell supports little if any fungi or other potentially harmful micro-organisms and is easy to “spot-clean”. It may, however, be too solid for hatchlings, which tend to develop splayed legs when kept on unyielding surfaces. Sand or rabbit pellets suffice for them, but be sure to keep these substrates clean and dry. Due to their unusual climbing abilities, the enclosure housing pancake tortoises should be well-covered. Like all tortoises, they benefit from time out-doors in suitable weather, but must be protected from raccoons, rats, cats and other predators, as their shells offer virtually no protection.
Your tortoise’s home must be equipped with a high quality UVB-emitting bulb and a basking site heated (95-100) by an incandescent spotlight. They should be able to move away from this area to temperatures of 75-85 F as well, so be sure to provide as large a cage or aquarium as possible. They readily utilize cork bark or other retreats, and such provide an important sense of security to them. These shelters should be placed away from the basking area.
Strict vegetarians, pancake tortoises should not be given meat-based foods, which can lead to kidney and liver damage. They do best on a wide variety of greens and vegetables, such as kale, romaine, endive, dandelion, bok choy, mustard greens, collard greens, yams and carrots. Fruit should only be offered in small amounts, as a monthly treat. They favor dandelion flowers, and should be allowed to graze outdoors (on pesticide-free ground) when possible. The composition of their salad should be varied with seasonally available greens. Anecdotal evidence indicates that this species has high calcium requirements, and so a powdered reptile calcium supplement should be added to the salad at all feedings. Cuttlebone , sold as a supplement for pet birds should also be available. Spinach, which binds calcium, should be avoided. A vitamin supplement should be given to adults once each week, and three times each week to growing animals. Tortoise chow should also be mixed into salad at each feeding. Most pet owners enjoy feeding their pets – pancake tortoises are happy to oblige by thriving on daily feedings (especially important for hatchlings). Adults can also be fed larger, less frequent meals, i.e. every-other-day. They seem to enjoy gnawing on the thick, tough stems of kale and the like, and such is valuable in keeping their “beaks” from becoming over-grown (keep watch on the condition of their mandibles, and consult a veterinarian if needed).
Pancake tortoises rarely encounter standing water in the wild, but benefit from a weekly 20-minute soaking, at which time they will drink and then defecate (maintaining a weekly soaking routine simplifies cage cleaning as well). They will climb out of soaking trays if possible, even using others as stepping stones.
We have quite a bit to learn about this most fascinating of tortoises. Most especially, captives seem plagued by low fertility rates. I encourage those of you keeping this species to experiment with their diet, and in cycling temperature and day length to match those occurring seasonally in southeast Africa.