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Leopard Tortoise
Stigmochelys (Geochelone) pardalis

 
  A leopard tortoise hatching  
   

Introduction

The Leopard Tortoise Stigmochelys (Geochelone) pardalis is a large grazing species that favors semi-arid (not dry), thorny to grassland habitats. However, it is also seen in some regions featuring a higher level of precipitation. They have a very attractive shell pattern. The shell pattern acts like camouflage in its natural home range. It is found throughout savannahs of Africa from Sudan to the southern Cape. Being a tropical tortoise, Leopard tortoises do not hibernate.

Care

Here in the states it is one of the more popular tortoises and is frequently bred. This large species can get over 2 feet long and weigh up to 100 pounds. Most are from 15-18" and 30-50 pounds. This is one of the few species where the male can be larger than the female.

They require large pen's and is best kept outdoors in parts of the country where the temperature reaches 90 °F and night temps stay in the 60's. They also are sensitive to humidity. Cooler temps and a relative humidity above 70% can cause upper respiratory problems. The subspecies Geochelone pardalis babcocki appears to be more tolerant of high humidity.

In areas where the night temps are too cold or conditions don't permit them to be outside year round, a heated greenhouse or indoor accommodations are necessary. The minimum pen size for an adult is 10' x 10'.

Diet

The diet should be at least 70% grasses and hay. Not surprisingly, given its preference for grassland habitats the Leopard tortoise grazes, extensively upon mixed grasses weeds, and flowers. It also favors the fruit and pads of the prickly pear (Opuntia sp.), succulents and thistles. "Meat" foods should never be given to Leopard tortoises because it can lead to excessive growth, high blood-urea levels, kidney/liver problems, and bladder stones. 

In captivity it is a common error to feed too much wet food such as lettuce, tomatoes and fruit when in reality this tortoise requires a coarse, high fiber diet. The sugar content of fruit will also alter the pH of the gut which results in a die off of the normal gut flora. Feeding excessive fruit or soft foods frequently leads to repeated flagellate (a type of parasite) and other gut problems such as colic, most probably as a result of increased gut motility.

 More information can be found in the diet  section of this site.

Due to their prodigious growth rate, their demand for calcium and mineral trace elements is high.  It's usually recommended that  calcium/D3 supplement be provided daily, but this can lead to excessive supplementation. Excessive amounts do not just flush from the tortoises system, but can and do lead to malabsorption of essential fatty acids and other deficiencies such as iron, zinc, iodine, cooper. It  can also cause bladder stones. Calcium has a very narrow safe range of intake. Excessive amounts of calcium can also lead to hypercalcemia and soft bones.  The addition of D3 can be toxic and lead to hypercalcemia as well.

In a captive environment, particularly in cooler parts of the US where outdoor grazing cannot be provided on a year round basis, providing a "natural" grasses and weeds are not always in option.  There are some excellent supplemental diets available today that can be used when reliance on feeding store bought produce and these products eliminate the need to supplement with the commonly used powder forms of Calcium/D3.   
  

Water Requirements

Unfortunately, many believe that tortoises naturally acquire almost all of their fluid requirements from its food and that therefore they do not require additional drinking water. Leopard tortoises are indeed adapted to a semi-arid environment and its system of eliminating waste via uric acid rather than via urea is clear evidence of this. Uric acid can be eliminated using substantial lower levels of water wastage than can systems based on urea, such as those of mammals.  Therefore, tortoises, such as Leopards, eliminate nitrogenous waste products with far greater water conservation. Its behavior is also programmed to reflect this need not to waste precious water.

The semi-solid, white deposits are expelled urates. Tortoises are programmed not to use water in the bladder and to eliminate urates only if replenishment is available. Depriving the tortoise of water will result in urates being accumulated  and quite often to dangerous levels.  During a rain tortoises will often drink and urinate simultaneously. This behavior can be stimulated in hot weather by lightly spraying the tortoise with a garden hose. In the wild, during hot and rain-free summers, aestivation or semi-aestivation occurs. There are several factors that will lead to aestivation. Lack of food and environmental water are major factors, as is temperature. During aestivation periods tortoises maintain themselves below ground, in burrows which provide a stable microclimate. In these burrows temperatures are much lower than those above ground and the relative humidity is very much higher. Combined with reduced activity, these factors result in a vastly reduced rate of fluid loss via exhalation and little or no need to urinate and prevent dehydration. In a captive situation, many tortoises are not provided with a microclimate and easily become dehydrated, especially when water is not provided for drinking.




 

Old Leopard Tortoise
Click on the photo to see full size

Male or Female

In the wild they reach sexual maturity at 12-15 years. As in many tortoise species size seems to be a major consideration. In captivity sexual maturity can be reached in as little as 6 years and 200mm (7.8") in length.

Males have a longer and thicker tail When compared side by side its easier to determine gender . The male plastron may be slightly concave and display a "V" shaped notch for the tail opening while females typically will have a "U" shaped notch.

 

 

The differences are fairly obvious when both sexes are compared side by side

 

  

 

male/female comparison

The arrow points to the end of the tail in this male

 

 

    
   male  

Close-up of a Male Leopard tortoise's tail
Close-up of a male Leopard tortoise's tail. Click on the picture to view it full size