Pancake Tortoise


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

Status: Vulnerable

They can reach about 7 inches in length and are roughly an inch tall. The carapace of this animal is brown and may contain dark lines on the scutes. The plastron of the shell is a paler color than the carapace, often being yellowish and containing dark brown seams. The actual limbs and head of the animal are considered a pale brown color with a yellowish hue.

Unlike most tortoises, they do not have a domed shell. This allows this tortoise to be able to take advantage of its surroundings. It can hide in cracks in rocks and they have long fingernails which they can use to prevent themselves from being removed from the rock. This is used to protect themselves from predators. The carapace is much more pliable than most other testudines and the rib bones that support the carapace are further apart than most other turtles/tortoises. Because of this the shell can be bent and collapsed with only a little bit of pressure. This allows the tortoise to be able to slip in to very small openings. This shell does not give them as much protection as other tortoises or turtles.

The pancake tortoise shell bones have many openings instead of being solid. Because of this, it is safer for the tortoise to rely on speed and flexibility to escape predators than it is to retreat into their shell, which could easily be torn apart.

Sexually dimorphic; the males are a little bit smaller but possess a larger tail than the female. Males also have a less distinctive rayed pattern on the scutes of the carapace.

Also called the soft-shell tortoise.

Habitat/Range: Found only in Tanzania and Kenya (East Africa). They are completely terrestrial and are commonly found in dry shrubby areas and on rocky hills. They will generally live at elevations between 100ft and 6,000 ft. Because of the wide range of elevation they have adapted to live in a range of different temperatures (54 degrees F to 86 degrees F with the average being 74-85 F). Colonies are generally isolated from one another. There may also be an introduced population in Zimbabwe.

Diet in Wild: Herbivorous, dry grass and vegetation.

Diet in Zoo: Diet in the zoo consists of tortoise pellets which are free fed UFN.

Predators: Mongooses and other larger carnivores in the area

Life Cycle/ Social Structure: These tortoises live in colonies that are fairly isolated from each other, but within the colony they may share a “kobje” or crevice area. While they may get along during most of the year, breeding season can lead to males fighting for females (January and February).

Once the female has mated, she digs a nest 7.5-10cm deep generally located in loose soil. In the fall this occurs in July and August although pancake tortoises are known to nest year round in captivity- generally with only one egg in each nest. Young hatch after a period of 4 to 6 months and are precocial.

Generally, this tortoise is more active during the morning and afternoon hours.

Life Span In captivity, these animals can live around 25 years although some may live up to 30.

Interesting Facts:

  • Each egg is about two inches long, but only half this in width.
  • Get most of the water they need from the vegetation in their diet
  • Shell is very flat compared to other tortoises

Conservation Message: Because of its interesting and different shape, this animal is highly sought after for private collections. Many animals are removed from the wild to fill this need.

Habitat destruction is another large factor impacting the pancake tortoise wild population. Deforestation of the scrublands where they are found to create agricultural areas coupled with over-grazing by domestic animals (goats and cattle) are removing what is left of the already scarce habitat.

Any decrease in this tortoise’s population is exacerbated by the animal’s slow reproduction rate, making it impossible for a quick rebound.

What You Can Do: Make sure to do your research when purchasing a pet. If you are looking for an exotic animal, make sure the breeder is reputable and did not remove the animal (or its parents) directly from the wild populations.

Due to decreases in population, Kenya has banned the export of these pancake tortoises without specialized permission. Several other countries where the animal is naturally occurring have also banned or placed restrictions on the export of these animals. In addition, some countries have laws prohibiting the import of these tortoises. Captive bred pancake tortoises are becoming more readily available but still cannot keep up with the demand.