COMMON NAME (SCIENTIFIC NAME)Malacochersus tornieri
DIETDry grasses, vegetation, fallen fruit and seeds
RANGETanzania and Kenya (East Africa).
HABITATDry shrubby areas and on rocky hills at elevations between 100-6,000 ft.
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Program and General Information
Pancake tortoises are a unique species of tortoise both physically and behaviorally. They grow to be about 6-7 inches in length and can be found in the scrublands and rocky outcrops of Eastern Africa. Their unusually thin, flat, and flexible shell makes the pancake tortoise lighter and quicker than other tortoise species. Instead of hiding inside of their shell, pancake tortoises will run from predators and use their flexible shells to wedge themselves into narrow rock crevices to hide. The yellow and brown patterns running along the shell provide natural camouflage in their habitats. Breeding occurs between January and February. Although they can produce numerous eggs throughout the summer, females will only lay one egg at a time in loose, sandy dirt from June to August. Eggs will hatch within 4-6 months and hatchlings are independent as soon as they hatch
The pancake tortoise is strictly vegetarian, and its diet consists primarily of dry grasses and most other vegetation. They will also take advantage of fallen fruit and seeds, and even indulge on succulents such as aloe.
Habitat and Range
Pancake tortoises are native to the arid savannas and scrublands of Kenya and Tanzania. An introduced population is also found in Zimbabwe. Kopje habitats, which consist of rocky outcrops, also provide a good habitat for pancake tortoises. They live in isolated colonies and spend much of their time hidden among the rocks. The rocky outcrops and scrublands these turtles occupy can be 100-6,000 feet in elevation.
Pancake tortoises generally only emerge from their shelter for about an hour at a time, usually in the morning and early evening, to bask and feed. They never stray too far from their shelter. Pancake tortoises are the fastest of all the tortoise species. Thanks to their lightweight shell, these tortoises are able to escape quickly if they do happen to run into trouble.
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. Pancake tortoises are one of 53 tortoise species that inhabit Africa. However, they are the only member of the genus Malacochersus.
Common Physical Features
Pancake tortoises can grow up to be 6-7 inches long and weigh about 1 pound. The carapace, or top part of the shell, is brown with a variable pattern of radiating dark lines on each scute, or shell plate. The plastron, or bottom part of the shell, is pale yellow with dark brown seams and light yellow rays. The head, limbs, and tail are yellowish-brown. The colors on the Pancake tortoise help to keep it camouflaged while moving around its habitat.
A turtle’s shell is actually a part of its body. The turtle’s ribs and backbone fuse together to form the shell. The shell is covered with a layer of protective plates called scutes. These scutes are made of keratin, the same stuff that makes up our nails and hair, and can be shed. Turtles shed their scutes for numerous reasons: as they grow, to replace damaged scutes, and to shed off any parasites or disease.
Adaptations: Tortoises can be distinguished from turtles by a few defining characteristics. Tortoises tend to have high, dome-shaped shells, large, thick limbs with sharp claws, and prefer to eat more vegetation than meat. All of these features enable tortoises to traverse and survive better on land.
Unlike other tortoise species, Pancake tortoises have a flat, flexible shell instead of a dome-shaped, solid shell. Openings between the bony plates of the shell make the pancake tortoise much lighter and more agile than other tortoise species. The flexible bridge, the area where the plastron and carapace connect, allows for the shell to be flattened slightly as the tortoise seeks shelter in rock crevices and inflated to wedge the tortoise into its hiding space, ensuring no predators can pull them out.
Since they cannot hide completely in their shell, these tortoises rely on speed and flexibility. Once they wedge themselves into a rocky crevice, Pancake tortoises will hide until the threat is gone. Spike-like scales on their limbs help to protect the tortoise while it is hiding. This built-in armor can keep the tortoise’s face, arms, and legs safe from bites and scratches from predators.
Behavior and Life Cycle
Pancake tortoises are oviparous, meaning they lay eggs outside the body. Under human care, breeding can occur year-round, but the breeding season is typically between January and February. The male will pursue the female and will fight with other males for the right to breed with her. From June to August, females will lay one egg at a time in loose, sandy dirt. Eggs will incubate in a hole about 4 inches deep for 4-6 months. Females are able to produce more eggs every 4-6 weeks over the season.
Hatchlings are a mere 1-2 inches long and are independent as soon as they hatch. Their shells are actually dome-shaped when born but begin to flatten as they grow. The sex of pancake tortoise hatchlings is temperature dependent: lower temperatures tend to produce more males, higher temperatures tend to produce more females.
As of 2019, Pancake tortoises have been listed as endangered. The greatest threats facing this species are habitat destruction and its over-exploitation by the pet trade. Given the low reproductive rate, populations that have been harvested for the pet trade or have been disrupted by habitat loss may take a long time to recover. Breeding efforts are underway in European zoos, where wildlife care specialists ensure that the eggs are incubating at the proper temperature for the sex needed for the growth of this population. As an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited facility, the Lehigh Valley Zoo is proud to play a role in the conservation community through participation in Species Survival Plans, or SSPs. Our Pancake tortoises are part of a breeding program where we help to maintain captive populations that are both genetically diverse and demographically stable.
What can we do?: By visiting the Lehigh Valley Zoo and other AZA member institutions, you’re supporting the highest level of animal care and welfare, along with the promotion of conservation of animals such as the Pancake tortoise.