Care Information for the Sri Lankan Star Tortoise
by Randy Fedak
The following information is based on my experience keeping and breeding reptiles and amphibians for the past 35 years. I do not consider this information to the absolute definitive answer to success because quite frankly I learn new things everyday and not only do I learn from other tortoise enthusiasts but also from the animals themselves. This fascination with their care is what drives my passion to be successful in not only their care but also their successful reproduction and long term health needs. I encourage everyone to read as many texts on the topic as possible to gain different perspectives. It is also wise to check the credibility of your sources if at all possible. Not everything on the Internet is correct! For the purpose of discussion the term “Stars” will be used to denote Sri Lankan Star Tortoises but these tips can also be applied to Mainland Stars or Burmese Stars.
Of all the reptiles, I find tortoises to be the most challenging because of their complex care needs. I try to tell people that there are two things that you need to know if you choose to bring a tortoise into your life. First, if you do a good job of caring for it you will have to put it in your will or trust because it will outlive you! Second, if it doesn’t outlive you then it is your fault so you better be able to live with the guilt!
HOUSING-Some General Guidelines
Tortoises spend the majority of their time roaming, grazing, burrowing or hiding from the elements. Since these are their natural behaviors it is important that your housing considerations accommodate their needs. With the exception of Pancake tortoises who actually do climb a bit, tortoises are not climbers so the floor space of their enclosure is more important than the height. Height can be an issue if you plan to use a basking light as your primary source of heat in an enclosure. If that is the case then you will need to adjust the height of the enclosure to allow for optimal basking temperatures and optimal clearance from the tortoise’s carapace to prevent burning. When building outdoor pens, the height of the sidewalls is important in that they should be high enough to prevent the tortoise from standing on its hind legs and reaching over the top. Any objects close to the sidewalls such as rocks or other tortoises will conveniently be used as a ladder toward escape so in general a sidewall should be at least three times the height of the carapace of the largest tortoise in the enclosure.
Exercise is a very necessary part of proper tortoise growth and development. Having an enclosure large enough to allow the tortoise to exercise and thus properly metabolize its food is essential to normal shell growth. Having a heat source strategically placed at one end of the enclosure allows the tortoise to choose between a warmer and cooler area. The cooler part of the enclosure should be equipped with some sort of hide cave or sturdy wooden box that will allow the tortoise to sleep in a quiet dark place. There are many types of reptile hide boxes on the market that work well for small tortoises and provide a natural rock or log appearance. Having a quiet get away area tends to reduce stress and assists in thermoregulation. Enclosures can be as simple as an aquarium or as elaborate as a home built structure with timers and thermostats. Personally, I prefer to build my tortoise enclosures to meet the specific needs of a given species. Plywood is easy to work with and depending on the grade it is relatively inexpensive. I cover all interior floors and at least half way up the walls with a product called “FRP” which is a waterproof fiberglass material that protects the wood and allows for easy disinfecting. I also cut reasonable ventilation windows in the walls and ceiling. The size of the vents will be determined by the size of the enclosure. I sometimes put flaps on the vents to allow me to regulate the amount of heat retained or lost by the enclosure. My larger enclosures have double walls that I fill with spray foam insulation to reduce heat loss. Depending on what climate you live in and the cost of electricity in your area, you may want to invest in insulation. If you live in a colder climate and your tortoise will spend a great deal of time indoors, I recommend raising the floor in your enclosures high enough to allow for a large Rubbermaid™ tub to be built into the cage to facilitate egg laying. More on this topic in the substrate section. In addition to basking lights, I also use floor heaters to promote proper digestion in the tortoises.
The majority of the information on housing I have provided pertains to indoor housing. The same goes for outdoor housing as far as the basic needs of the tortoises. Outside enclosures are essential for the overall health of your tortoises and should be provided as much as your climate will allow. The most important part about outdoor enclosures is that they must be secure. DO NOT LEAVE YOUR TORTOISES OUTSIDE AT NIGHT unless they will warm enough and they are protected from predators such as raccoons and skunks and all the rest of the scavenging predators in the wild.
The last topic under housing that I would like to cover has to do with the mixing of species and animals of different size. As a rule, it is not advisable to mix species together especially if they come from different continents. Tortoises have different immune systems and naturally carry their own species specific gut flora. Redfoots, for example, should not be housed with Leopard Tortoises. Although they both are basically what we call savannah tortoises, Redfoots have higher humidity requirements and significantly different feeding requirements. One species of tortoise can act as a carrier of a disease and effectively wipe out another that doesn’t have an immune system capable of defending itself against foreign antigens that it would normally never come in contact with. The same is true for parasites. Wild caught animals should never be mixed with captive bred animals unless thoroughly deparasitized by a qualified veterinarian.
With regards to mixing animals of different size, absent the obvious that larger heavier animals can squash smaller ones, larger animals tend to be more aggressive feeders and they can easily stress out a smaller animal. It’s best to feed animals of similar size together even if due to necessity they are being housed together.
Ideally a cage substrate should attempt to duplicate a natural setting as much as possible. Unfortunately, the need for sanitation often makes soil a non viable alternative in an indoor enclosure especially if the cage is small. There are several cage substrates that allow you to reach a balance between sanitation, aesthetics, and still provide the necessary “give” that is essential to proper bone growth. It’s best to strive for an uneven somewhat soft surface if possible. Baby tortoises especially need this to allow for the proper exercise of their feet which prevents a condition called “splayed leg” where the tortoises begin to walk on the inner part of their feet and eventually lose the ability to walk up right. Any substrate chosen should be non-toxic and be able to be passed or digested if it were to be inadvertently consumed. Avoid potting soil that contains Perilite.
Given these parameters, I have had the most success using either fine sifted topsoil/ potting soil or rabbit pellets. Rabbit pellets work especially well for small tortoises. I sometimes use alpha pellets for larger tortoises. The disadvantages of pellet substrates are they don’t allow for periodic misting and they tend to foul water bowls in a hurry. Whatever substrate you decide to use, keep it dry most of the time. I will usually remove tortoises to an outside pen or plastic trough for periodic showering and shell washing. Large plastic tubs filled with a dirt substrate can be used to facilitate egg laying indoors when outdoor weather is too extreme
Star Tortoises should have water present in their enclosures at all times. Tap water is fine. I use shallow dishes, sunk in the substrate, that are deep enough to allow the tortoise to easily submerge their heads yet not so deep where they could drown if they fell in. I use plastic Skippy Peanut Butter lids for hatchling and juveniles. On extremely hot days when the tortoises are outside in their pens, I spray the entire enclosure with a hose and allow it to pool up so the tortoises can drink. The falling drops simulate a rainstorm and it really causes them to become active. If you feed commercial diets such as Pretty Pets Tortoise™ or Mazuri Tortoise™ always make sure you have water available because those types of pellets really absorb water and they do the same thing inside your tortoises!
Star tortoises are predominately vegetarian grazers. Natural graze consisting of grass, clovers, miner’s lettuce, dandelions, etc. should make up the bulk of the Star Tortoise diet. Stars have a particular fondness for red colored fruits such as strawberries and tomatoes. Feed fruit sparingly as a treat once in awhile but not as a rule because Stars become addicted to it and will eventually deter them from eating a more balanced diet if given too frequently. High fiber diets are necessary to keep their gut flora in check and keep their digestive tracts moving. I feed my Star Tortoises twice per day in the summer and once per day during the winter months when they are more lethargic. I will usually feed them one meal of greens (items listed above) supplemented with romaine lettuce and an occasional squash. The second feeding usually consists of a commercial diet such as Pretty Pets Tortoise Diet™ or Mazuri Tortoise Diet™ (soaked until soft). I believe that providing a variety in their diet is essential to proper growth and development. Spoiled or uneaten food should be removed in between feedings. This diet, coupled with adequate cage space and exercise will allow your tortoises to develop strong bones and normal shell growth. I feed the same diet to hatchlings as I do adults but obviously in smaller quantities. I will chop grasses into smaller pieces that are easier for them to eat because they just don’t have the jaw strength to tear grass at a young age.
Providing a varied diet tends to minimize the need for adding vitamins to the diet of Star Tortoises. I have used Herptivite™ as a supplement on some occasions but only because I happened to have it on hand and wanted to use it before it expired. If you plan to rely on commercial diets for the bulk of your feedings then I would recommend using a vitamin supplement on their food a couple of times per week. I do sprinkle their food about three times per week with a high quality, phosphorous free calcium supplement. Adult females have an especially high need for calcium during their egg producing months. If they are not allowed access to supplemental calcium they can actually leach out calcium from their own bones in order to provide enough calcium to produce shelled eggs. Crushed oyster shell placed in the outdoor enclosures is also relished especially by gravid females. There is still much controversy regarding the amount of protein that should be provided in the diet of tortoises. I have found that there is enough protein in the commercial diets, coupled with my particular feeding regimen, to provide enough protein for normal growth and development. Some breeders will supplement their tortoise diets with Zupreem Monkey Biscuits™ which are very high in protein. Once again, balance and moderation should be your guide.
Star Tortoises are considered savannah animals and for the purpose of this discussion, tropical tortoises that DO NOT hibernate. Seasonal fluctuations in temperature are beneficial for normal hormonal cycling of breeding populations but never to the extreme of what would be considered brumation or hibernation. Stars appreciate higher humidity and they enjoy showers which not only stimulate breeding behavior but also assist in raising the humidity level. The normal night time (all lights off) temperature you should strive for is between 75-80 degrees Fahrenheit. I try to provide approximately 14 hours of light per day for Star Tortoises with a daytime low of 80 degrees and a basking light warm area of 90-100 degrees. The average air temperature should be between these extremes. I highly recommend using wireless thermometers that are available at Radio Shack. This will allow you to measure the temperature at different locations in the cage without having to open the cage and thus create abnormal temperature fluctuations.
Heat can be supplied a number of different ways depending on your particular set up. Basking lights provide both heat and light which tends to simulate normal outdoor basking behavior. Ceramic heaters are good for maintaining overall air temperature and they are generally very long lived. They are also useful in that they can maintain warm temperatures while the tortoises are in their sleep cycle. Floor heaters can also be used in combination with other heaters to provide a warm substrate. My only recommendation on floor heating is that there be a cool area where the tortoise can get off the heated area and sleep.
As previously mentioned, basking lights can provide duel purpose use by providing not only heat but also light. Basking lights, however, can’t provide heat if they are turned off at night which is why other devices may be in order. Incandescent red or black lights can provide heat while still allowing the tortoises to sleep. For normal day light hours I recommend full spectrum fluorescent bulbs placed approximately 16 inches above the floor of the cage. Full spectrum lighting is absolutely necessary for tortoises that will spend the majority of their time indoors. There are several commercial manufactures of full spectrum lighting available for your choosing. I suggest researching independent lab studies as far as which ones emit the best range of UV rays for the longest period of time. UV is necessary for the proper absorption of calcium and manufacturing of vitamin D3 for proper shell development. Always change the bulbs per manufacturers’ recommendations.
Star Tortoises are very susceptible to respiratory infections and I would not recommend that they be kept by anyone who does not have a great deal of experience with other species or by someone who is not willing to provide for all of their needs. Star Tortoises stress easily and they should not be housed with other species. The vast majority of illness involving captive bred individuals stems from some type of husbandry issue so whenever there is a problem then you should most definitely review how you are taking care of your tortoise and what has changed that may have caused the problem. Have there been temperature fluctuations? Drastic changes in humidity? Exposure to some new food item? Exposure to other species? Make sure you review your care practices and try to pinpoint the problem. Most illnesses will require treatment by a qualified veterinarian. The best way to locate a qualified veterinarian is to talk to other people in your area who care for reptiles. They should be able to help you. Try to locate a veterinarian that specializes in exotic animals and has experience handling reptiles. Be aware that tortoises are slow to show signs of illness and also slow to heal after treatment so don’t delay in seeking care if your tortoise begins to show symptoms such as loss of appetite, wheezing, chronic runny nose, mucous coming from the mouth or eyes that remain glued shut, failure to thrive, obvious weight loss, constipation, or chronic watery foul smelling stools. Knowing the everyday normal behavior of your tortoise will allow you to determine if something is wrong and it will also assist you in being able to provide your veterinarian with some clues as to what may be the problem. Be prepared to pay for standard laboratory exams which are often times used to determine bacterial infections and to determine the proper course of treatment. Don’t wait until your tortoise is extremely ill to take it to the veterinarian. Waiting will only cost you more money in the long run and sick tortoises generally don’t recover without assistance. Try to isolate sick animals as soon as possible and always quarantine new animals before introducing them into established collections.
I highly recommend keeping records of your tortoises’ weight so you can determine if your pet is growing at a normal rate as opposed to not growing or perhaps losing weight.
I hope this information will be helpful to you while caring for your new pet. If you have any questions or just want to run a situation or scenario by me don’t hesitate to email me with your questions. I can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Good luck and happy herping!
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