Pancake Tortoise

STATUSCritically Endangered

COMMON NAME (SCIENTIFIC NAME)Malacochersus tornieri

DIETHerbivorous; dry grasses and vegetation

RANGETanzania and Kenya (East Africa).

HABITATDry shrubby areas and on rocky hills at elevations between 100-6,000 ft.

Pancake Tortoise

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Program and General Information

Pancake tortoises are unique in many ways. They have a thin, flat, flexible shell, which makes them lightweight and quicker than other tortoises. They are also excellent climbers, since they spend much of their time among rocky hillsides in East Africa. Instead of ducking into their shells for protection, pancake tortoises run from predators and hide in crevices. Luckily, their brown and yellow patterns provide camouflage within their habitats. They also tend to stay close to home while feeding on grasses and other vegetation. Pancake tortoises only lay one egg at a time, although they can lay multiple throughout the nesting season. Because of this and the over-exploited pet trade, their populations are decreasing and slow to recover. They are currently listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

Common Physical Features

Pancake tortoises can grow to be 6 or 7 inches long, and weigh about one pound. They have a thin, flat, flexible shell, which has openings between the bony plates, making it much lighter and more agile than other tortoises. They also have a flexible bridge (connecting the plastron and carapace) to allow it to be flattened slightly as the tortoise seeks shelter in rock crevices. The carapace (top shell) is brown, with a variable pattern of radiating dark lines on each scute (shell plate), helping to camouflage the tortoise. The plastron (bottom shell) is pale yellow with dark brown seams and light yellow rays. The head, limbs, and tail are yellow-brown.

Habitat and Global Range

Pancake tortoises dwell in arid savannas and scrublands of East Africa. They are native to southern Kenya, and northern and eastern Tanzania. An introduced population is found in Zimbabwe. They also like kojpe habitat, which consists of rocky outcrops. They live in isolated colonies.


The pancake tortoise is strictly vegetarian, and their diet consists primarily of dry grasses. They also take advantage of fallen fruit and seeds, and even indulge on succulents such as aloe.

Behavior and Life Cycle

The pancake tortoise spends much of its time among the rocks, where it is provided shelter. It is mainly active in the morning, emerging to bask and to feed. It generally only emerges from shelter for about an hour at a time, and is quite mobile and active during that time. When threatened, it will run to a crevice and use its legs to wedge itself as deeply inside as it can, remaining until he danger is gone. Breeding occurs in January and February. Females will lay one egg at a time in loose, sandy dirt from June to August. The holes for incubation are about 4 inches deep. Females may produce more eggs every 4-6 weeks over the season. The sex of the offspring is temperature-dependent. Eggs are about 2 inches long and one inch wide, and hatch after 4-6 months. There is no parental care.

Fun Facts

  • Pancake tortoises are one of 53 tortoise species that inhabit Africa. However, they are the only member of the genus
  • The pancake tortoise is thought to be the fastest tortoise and the best climber, due to the lightness of its shell. They are able to scale nearly vertical surfaces. They are also able to flip upright quickly if they fall on their backs.
  • On hatching, the pancake tortoise is the size of a half-dollar (about one inch long). They also have a domed shell, as do all other tortoises. As they grow, the shell flattens, in keeping with the species’ name.
  • The pancake tortoise is surprisingly social, and gets along well in a group as long as there is food for all. As many as ten tortoises have been found sharing the same crevice.
  • Rather than ducking to its shell for protection, when threatened the pancake tortoise will run for shelter in the rocks. Thus, they are called “sprinters and hiders.”
  • Long before eh name “pancake tortoise” was popular, these animals were called the “soft-shelled” tortoise, due to their pliable plastron. This feature allows the tortoise to “inflate” to increase their thickness.

Conservation Messaging

The pancake tortoise is listed as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List. The greatest threats facing this species are habitat destruction ad its over-exploitation by the pet trade. Wild populations in Kenya are losing their habitat to agricultural development. In Tanzania, overgrazing of domestic cattle and goats is impacting the pancake tortoise. Populations harvested for the pet trade consist of juveniles, thereby isolating populations in the wild. Given the low reproductive rate, populations that have been harvested may take a long time to recover. Fortunately, in 1981 Kenya banned the export of pancake tortoises without written permission from the Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources. Tanzania protects this species under the Wildlife Conservation Order of 1974. The European union banned the import of the pancake tortoise in 1988, and coordinated captive breeding efforts are underway in European zoos. Pancake tortoises make fine pets, but extreme care should be taken to assure that you are buying captive-bred individuals.

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