African Pancake Tortoise


Lifespan: Up to 25 years

Wild Diet: Herbivorous; grass, succulent plants and fallen fruits.

Zoo Diet: Fruit salad and lettuce

Predators: Birds and mammals. Thin shell that surrounds body allows it to slip between rocks and avoid a lot of predation.


IUCN Status: Vulnerable

Habitat/Range: Found in rocky hills, kopjes and outcrops in arid scrub and savannah of Southern Kenya and Northern and Eastern Tanzania.

Characteristics: Small, greatly flattened tortoise with a thin, flexible shell. So flexible that the plastron (bottom part of the shell) moves in and out as it breathes. Softness of shell comes from the underlying structure of the bones. Most tortoises' bones are solid. However, in the Pancake Tortoise these bones have many openings, or fenestrations, in them. Lighter bones and shell allows it to move much faster than other land tortoises. Because they are so light they can turn themselves over with ease if they fall on their backs. Shell about 6-7 inches long and 1 in high. Weigh about 1 lb. Carapace is brown with a random pattern of radiating lines on each scute, which allows the tortoise to blend into its environment. Beak is moderately hooked and the upper head scales are small and irregular. Males have longer and thicker tails in comparison to females. Females slightly larger than males.

Behavior: Doesn't respond to danger by withdrawing into its shell. Relies on speed and flattened shape to escape predators in its rocky environment. The shell is very soft and flexible so that it yields under pressure, enabling it to squeeze into crevices in times of danger or when disturbed. It is able to rotate its legs, bracing itself and forcing its carapace up against the rock. In this position it is almost impossible to remove. There are conflicting opinions concerning its ability to puff itself up with air so the shell is distended and cannot be dislodged. Most active in the cool morning.

Reproduction: Sometimes found in quite large numbers on a single kopje. Large males get the most chances to mate in the breeding season. Small males will not even approach females in the presence of larger males. In the wild, breeding is in January and February with nesting in July and August. Breeding is any time of the year in captivity. Female will lay one elongated egg at a time, up to four, one every 6 weeks to two months. Females will bury the egg under 3-4 inches of loose, sandy dirt. Incubation is very variable (113 to 221 days). There is a period of delayed development at the beginning, possibly so all the eggs hatch together to coincide with the period of greatest food availability. The baby tortoises are independent as soon as they hatch. Hatchlings are approximately 1 1/2 inches long. One to two clutches per year. Can live in captivity for decades.

Conservation: The popularity of wild-caught pancake tortoises as pets in the USA and Europe is having a severe impact on their native populations. The impact is worsened because they have a low reproductive rate. The Pancake tortoise's already limited habitat is destroyed by raiders breaking open crevices to get at them. They are thought the be a vulnerable species.