Image Credit : Mickael Leger Photographie
The star tortoise belongs to a group of tortoises that bear a distinguishing radiating pattern on their carapaces. The ground colour of the shell is light cream to dark yellowish brown, and a number of wedge-shaped black fields on each scute form the characteristic star pattern. The head is speckled with black.
The Star tortoise can possess a shell with naturally raised scutes, something which looks similar, but not identical to the pyramiding often seen in tortoises marked by malnutrition and poor husbandry. This feature is highly variable in the Star tortoise – both smooth and quite bumpy specimens exist in the same populations.
- Scientific name : Geochelone elegans
- Distribution : Pakistan,India,Sri Lanka
- Average Size : 0.35 m (1 ft)
- Life Span : 30 years or more
- Difficulty : Intermediate
For outdoor pens, the enclosure can be a minimum of 0.9 x 1.8 meters (3 X 6 feet) but preferably at least 1.8 x 1.8 meters (6 X 6 feet). Of course it can be larger but if you make is smaller it makes it difficult for you to add enrichment areas, provide a gentle slope so water can drain away from the back of the cage, and provide a small area in the front of the pen for a water source. The boundary of the pen needs to only be about 0.6 meters (2 feet) high.
The boundary should also be sunk into the ground about 0.15 meters (0.5 feet) as well. Star tortoises are not burrowers but they are nestlers. They nestle down into the ground and can just work their way out. You also want to discourage predators from burrowing into the cage or pen as well. Your outdoor enclosure needs to be protected from overhead predators as well such as crows, hawks, eagles, etc. And covered also to protect from rats, raccoons, etc. You can use window screening, hardware cloth or any type of mesh that will protect predators from entering the pen area and still allow sunlight for basking into the pen. . Make sure it does not sag to the ground as the tortoise could climb up it and out as well.
For indoor caging or tortoise cages, for an adult tortoise they would need a 0.9 x 1.8 meters (3 X 6 feet) area. 0.9 meters (3 feet) cage can still be moved in and out through doorways if necessary. You can have a slate bottom, or cover wood with shelving paper, linoleum or even paint the bottom to make it non porous. You do not want it porous as it will retain bacteria. And even cover the sides as well. A slate bottom in the food area will help the natural wear and tear of the beak as your tortoise eats.
For outdoor pens, you can plant tortoise safe shrubs, flowers, bushes, and grasses. Place rocks for them to run around and get out of the line of sight of other tortoises if they so choose. For indoor enclosures, the enclosure should have a humid hide on the warm side and cool side. They should always have the option to choose. And of course little caves to hide in to feel protected and safe.
The cage can have coco coir mixed with topsoil. I do not like sand in any fashion. Long Term use leads to impactions and there are so many other substrates to use that are good so why take a chance. I recommend blocking off ¼ of the cage with bricks so the coco coir and soil mixture does not go onto where the food and water is. It makes it easier to clean and you can just put flat rocks and caves on the food and water side. Make it fun for the tortoise to explore or relax.
I also place other rocks and branches and even some potted plants (please refer to the many edible plant lists on line) in the cage to provide enrichment for the tortoise. It gives them different stuff in their “room” to look at, walk around and to do. Do NOT put in silk plants, artificial grasses, or other items that have edible colors that are indigestible as I have found in captivity animals eat by sight more often than smell.
Lighting – Heating
For lighting, first and foremost, whenever possible any tortoise should have natural sunlight from the sun. All tortoises manage their day by the passing of the sun. Anything beyond that is simply imitating that fact. They wake up, bask, drink, eat , breed, and go back to bed according to the passing of the sun. Photoperiod is important. The natural sun should be unfiltered by glass. For indoor pens, Reptisun 10.0 for a fluorescent fixture is effective. And having UVB is important not only for the utilization of calcium combining with the D3 produced, but also by the spectrum of light as well.
Tortoises can see better in natural light, recognize its food, surroundings, it is a soothing more relaxing spectrum of light, and if using UVB bulbs indoors, the cage and the animal will look better. It will also help the health of your plants in the terrarium if you have them in with your tortoise. Your tortoise will not actually bask for 8-12 hours under the UVB. They will however move in and out of the basking area as necessary. So indoors you would want to create a basking area under the UVB to piggyback your basking heat light in the same spot.
And please remember after 6 months you will still have the soothing spectrum of light from the UVB light but you will lose the UVB properties of calcium / Vitamin D3 synthesis. And please remember, glass will magnify the heat. So do not put your tortoise outside in an aquarium. It has the potential of becoming too hot or too cold. The glass will filter the suns UV properties anyway.
Star tortoises do not hibernate or correctly termed brumate. Star Tortoises are more sensitive to extreme temperatures. Should temperatures fall into 15 ºC (60 ºF) additional heat should be provided. An occasional drop in temps in the summer is usually acceptable but the daytime basking ambient temps must reach 29-38 ºC (85-100 °F) during the day. If it is 15 ºC (60 °F) during the nights and only 26 ºC (80 °F) during the day, additional heat should be provided. In outdoor pens, we provide pig blankets or Radiant heaters for the tortoises. They should have a tortoise house they can retreat to in colder temperatures and they will learn to go in and stay in as needed. If temperatures are consistently below 24 ºC (75 °F) star tortoises should be kept indoors or in a greenhouse.
If kept outdoors, their house can be insulated with Styrofoam, and an additional wall of plywood so the tortoise cannot touch the Styrofoam or use actual insulating materials between double walls. Then their house can be heated. They will learn to go inside but this only works in warmer climates where it does not freeze or there is not excessive dampness. For inside enclosures, the basking heat lights should be on one end of the cage to provide a gradient temperature.
Water should be available at all times for your tortoise. It should be easy to climb in and out without tipping the water or the tortoise tipping over onto its back. For baby tortoises I just use deli lids and put the babies in it once a day and give a good soak every other day. Water should be fresh. Just because the water looks clean does not mean it smells fresh. Standing water gets stale and they taste it and smell it. Just take a sip of the water you placed by your bed and did not drink last night. It does not taste the same in the morning. And this includes outdoors as well as indoors.
Humidity in tortoises is a newly recognized important factor in tortoise keeping. In the past, people liked the odd shapes that pyramiding created. And then we came to believe pyramiding was a direct result of poor nutrition. That may well be a factor in pyramiding tortoises but we now also believe that pyramiding is linked to lack of humidity in their burrows or cages or pens. We soak juveniles and babies daily in hot weather and every other day in cooler temperatures.
If kept exclusively indoors, we soak the babies daily until there is consistent growth and hydration and I am secure the tortoise is seeking out the water regularly on its own. At this point I usually soak every couple days. Outside for all tortoises, babies and adults we provide misters in every cage that go off once a day in winter(unless it rains of course) and 2-3 times a day in summer depending on temperatures. The scutes are made of keratin and sit on top of bone. The humidity helps the keratin maintain hydration and keeps the keratin from shrinking.
For diet we feed a grassland diet. These tortoises are mostly grazers. Grazing tortoises eat tremendous volumes of food. They spend most of their warm days hunting for food and eating. The food consists mostly of weeds, dark green leaft vegetables, squashes, (for smaller tortoises squashes can be shredded like a carrot as their beaks are not strong enough to go through the squashes outer layers yet).
For grassland tortoises we limit the amount of fruit offered. The natural sugar found in fruits is not something that is available 12 months out of the year. And most fruits and vegetables are also rotated in availability. Fruits, whether grown on trees or bushes are available only 4 weeks, give or take a week, out of the year. When grapes ripen on the vine, it only is available for 6 weeks, strawberries maybe 4 weeks on a bush, berries maybe only 4 weeks. The rest of the time they are grazing on grasses and weeds.
Feeding too much fruit can lead to diarrhea. A star tortoises digestive system cannot handle too much fruit. The diarrhea causes the lining of the intestines to shed stripping the nutrients and friendly bacteria early from the intestines. Also this causes an imbalance in electrolytes and can also lead to dehydration. So please use caution when feeding fruits and pay attention to fecal consistency when doing so.
They can eat Bermuda grass, timothy hay, mustard greens, kale, dandelion and the flowers, clover, mallow, flowers such as roses, pansies, mums, violets, chrysanthemums, and yucca. This is only a few. There are several charts that can be looked up on line to use as a guideline.
But please keep in mind, THERE IS NO ONE MAGICAL FOOD. The key to feeding star tortoises and other grazing types of tortoises is it is the variety and volume of food that is important. Some of our tortoises’ feces are as fibrous coming out as they are going in. And always make sure your tortoise is warm enough to eat.
I must admit I do not handle my tortoises too much. They tend to like all 1.2 meters (4 feet) planted firmly on the ground or at least some solid surface. In handling, supporting all 1.2 meters (4 feet) is more comfortable for them. Take care not to turn them over as this is a defenseless position for the tortoise.
And always be sure to wash hands preferably before and after you handle your tortoise. If you have multiple tortoises it is always a wise practice to wash between tortoises as well so as not to transfer any bacteria or funguses between tortoises. Especially between tropical, aquatic and arid turtles and tortoises.
Cleaning Star Tortoise enclosures is relatively easy. Their stools should always be firm, urates, easy to clean. The cages can be spot cleaned most of the time. There should be no ammonia or fecal smell in the cage . If so, the enclosure definitely needs to be cleaned. There should never be any mold in the soil or food for the tortoise. I do not worry about dried food. The tortoises will still eat this. But if the food is dry, I still offer a little fresh food as well. My main concern is mold on the food or in the soil. If mold is present, that area or the entire enclosure needs to be cleaned.
Potential Health Problems
Our quick focus glance is on eating habits. If an animal eats, we are usually comfortable with the health of a tortoise. A tortoise that feels miserable generally does not eat. If an animal is not eating, then I check ambient temperature, and eyes and mouth. If eyes are sunken in, then dehydration is a possibility and certainly warranting a visit to a veterinarian.
If the mouth and nose is bubbling the first thing to do is check temperatures first with a thermometer. Animals will froth at the mouth and nose if it is too hot and if it is too cold. We think of mucus mouths when it is cold but it also happens if the animal is too hot. If the mucus has discoloration a visit to the vet is warranted. If the clear mucus does not clear up with an increase or decrease in temperatures, (depending on starting temps) then a visit to the Veterinarian is warranted. Froth and mucus leads to pneumonia if not dealt with swiftly and a certain death warrant.
Diarrhea is another problem to avoid. Stool should most always be well formed. And occasional loose stool is not anything to worry about but if stool is consistently loose, then the diet needs to be looked at and feed more fibrous meals until consistency is better. The white part of the stool is urates. Perfectly natural. Tortoises have urates not uric acid and this presents itself in a white or clear substance that is eliminated with the brown feces. If the urates are grainy or chunky or chalky, then better hydration may be in order. Just soak more.
Lastly, find yourself a reputable vet that has experience with star tortoises (or whatever you happen to have) the worse thing is trying to find someone when you have an emergency. There are many vets out there that are great with turtles and tortoises but there are also a lot of them that will treat your turtle and tortoise without really knowing what they are doing. Several tortoise forums have veterinary listings that are familiar and recommended by other tortoise people so look them up BEFORE you need one.
The information contained in this care sheet reflect the opinions and methods of the mentioned breeder, based on their expertise and long-established experience.