Pancake Tortoise (Malacochersus tornieri)

Husbandry and Rearing of Hatchlings


bulletUp to three adult Pancake tortoises may be housed in an enclosure having a minimum of eight square feet of floor space. Juveniles can be housed in smaller units provided that a proper thermal gradient can be maintained.
bulletPancake tortoises are excellent climbers, being able to negotiate near vertical surfaces. Make sure enclosures are secure but well ventilated.
bulletHiding areas are a must for this species. Hides can be constructed from a variety of materials. A sloping design that allows them to "wedge in" works best. Hides should be of stable construction and not subject to collapse, especially if heavy materials such as rocks are used.
bulletWithin hide areas, daytime temperatures of 80 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit  should be available. Temperatures are as measured with a thermometer resting on the substrate surface.
bulletA basking area should be provided during the daytime with temperatures between 90 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit. A small flood bulb suspended out of reach of the tortoise and cornered opposite the hide area works well for this purpose. A radiant heat source is preferred over hot rocks, heat pads, and other "underside" heaters. We recommend that a rounded rock or similar object be placed directly beneath heat lamps. This reduces the chance that a tortoise might flip over and be quickly overcome by possibly lethal high temperatures directly underneath the heat bulb. 
bulletIn combination with the flood bulb, a florescent fixture serves to provide additional illumination. Being equatorial animals, Pancakes do best when maintained on a twelve hour light cycle year round. An inexpensive electrical timer works well for this purpose. Optimally, nighttime temperatures should drop to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, although temperatures plus or minus five degrees are tolerated.    
bulletAny substrate that allows easy cleaning, proper footing, and is not harmful if ingested will work fine. For juveniles up to three inches in length, we use fiberglass window screening cut to floor size, placed over several layers of newspaper, and anchored around the edges with flat rocks. While not overly attractive, this setup is very sanitary and easy to keep clean, and also allows excellent footing. For larger juveniles and adults we use crushed oyster shell with excellent results. Crushed shell of this type is sold by farm supply or feed stores as a calcium supplement for laying chickens. To minimize accidental ingestion of shell particles, food plates are offered on newspaper or craft paper.
bulletThe floors and walls of the enclosure should be smooth and nonporous to facilitate proper cleaning. If wood is used, it should be coated with polyurethane or other nontoxic sealant.     


bulletWe do not provide water inside enclosures on a continual basis. Once each week hatchlings are allowed to soak in warm water (85-90 degrees Fahrenheit) for approximately 10 minutes. The water should be shallow, so that the tortoise can easily raise it's head to breathe while standing on the bottom. Tortoises that are soaking should be observed at all times, if they flip themselves over they can easily drown. Soaking tortoises not only allows for adequate hydration, but also facilitates the passage of feces and uric crystals. As Pancake tortoises grow we decrease the frequency of soakings so that when Pancake tortoises are near adult size we discontinue soaking them altogether. All water then comes from their food which is misted with water prior to feeding to boost it's moisture content.


bulletFood items should be cut to a manageable size. We feed juveniles less than one year old on a daily basis. Other successful keepers have fed hatchlings every other day with good results.
bulletIdeally, food items should be relatively high in fiber, high in calcium, low in phosphorous, low in protein, and low in sugar content. Within these parameters, we provide as much variety as possible.
bulletWe thoroughly mix all food items prior to feeding in an attempt to broaden the diet of potentially picky eaters.
bulletSpecific food items we provide are as follows:

Primary food items: grasses and grass hay, clover and clover hay, dandelion greens and    flowers, collard greens, turnip greens, and lettuce (not iceberg).

Secondary food items (used in lesser quantities): cabbage (head, bok choy, or napa), alfalfa, parsley, celery, shredded carrot, and mustard greens.

Occasionally (approximately once per month): spinach, squash, cucumber, tomato, or spineless cactus pads.



Calcium carbonate fortified with vitamin D3 is dusted on all food items. Hatchlings in particular have a very high requirement for calcium. Vitamin D3 is necessary to help metabolize calcium in an indoor environment. The amount of supplementation is roughly in accordance with that suggested by Highfield (see suggested reading).


We also provide a high quality multivitamin supplement once per week to all sizes of tortoises.


As an additional source of fiber we suggest providing unlimited access to dry grass and clover. This dry graze promotes properly formed stools, reduces problems with intestinal parasites, and seems to promote smooth shell growth.

General Sanitation:


Never house different species together. "Bugs" that may not be pathogenic to one species can be deadly to another. Likewise it is recommended that hands and equipment be washed between  feeding and other maintenance of different species.


Quarantine new arrivals for at least three months before introducing them to resident stock. Healthy tortoises develop predictable daily routines within a few weeks in a new environment. Aberrant behavior is often the first sign that something may be wrong. Only well acclimated tortoises that look healthy, eat well, behave normally, and have been screened for parasites should be introduced to resident stock. Captive bred animals are always the best choice.


A weak bleach solution works well to disinfect enclosures and food dishes. Dishes should be thoroughly rinsed after disinfecting.


Enclosures should be "spot cleaned" as required. If spot cleaning is done routinely, a total disinfecting of the enclosure may only be necessary every six to eight months.

Suggested Reading:

Highfield, A.C. 1996. Practical Encyclopedia of Keeping and Breeding Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles. Carapace Press, c/o The Turtle Trust, BM Tortoise, London, WCIN 3xx, England. 295 pp


Pritchard, Peter C. H. 1979. Encyclopedia of Turtles. T.F.H. Publications, Inc. 211 West Sylvania Avenue, Neptune, NJ 07753. 895pp