With its flat shell, soft plastron and habit of fleeing rather than withdrawing into its shell when disturbed, the pancake tortoise (Malacochersus tornieri) rates as one of the oddest of all chelonians. The most distinctive
feature is the very flat but often beautifully patterned carapace. There are large pliable or soft areas on the
plastron, where the scutes overlie large fontanelles or partial gaps between the bony plates. Pancake tortoises are
small, typically reaching a carapace length of about 6 inches (maximum 7 inches) and a weight of about 1 lb. Mature
males have much longer and thicker tails than females. In my experience, tail size has not been a reliable indicator
of gender in these tortoises until they have reached about 5 inches in length.
Pancake tortoises occur in the wild on rocky hillsides (known as kopjes) in parts of Kenya and Tanzania (including the famous Serengeti National Park) in East Africa, at elevations of 100-6000 feet. Because of the separation of the
kopjes, they live in isolated groups. They are excellent climbers, and make their homes under rocks, in rocky crevices
(hence the alternative name crevice tortoise), or in small caves. When alarmed or to escape predators pancake
tortoises will run into narrow cracks in the rocks, and use their front legs to tightly wedge themselves in. Although
their pliable plastron allows these tortoises to "inflate" themselves to increase their thickness, earlier claims that
they can inflate and wedge themselves in rocky cracks "chuckwalla style" are now believed to be untrue. Although they
do not appear to hibernate, they may estivate during the hottest months (January and February). Although the biology
of the wild tortoises is still poorly understood there is some evidence that their social behavior also sets them
apart from most other chelonians in that they may occur in fairly large aggregates.
Collection for the pet trade is probably the major threat to their continued survival in the wild. Their curiosity value, combined with their small size, has fueled large scale collection of these tortoises for the pet trade and they
are commonly seen for sale in local pet stores. Unfortunately, few private individuals have bred pancake tortoises,
and captive bred pancake tortoises are rarely available. This year, the Tulsa Zoo reported the first successful second
Pancake tortoises seem to be very adaptive, and with suitable care and attention can thrive in captivity. I have 4 males - a mature adult, 2 juveniles that I raised from hatchlings which I have had for several years, and a recently
acquired fourth juvenile who was found wandering in the San Fernando Valley. Earlier this year I acquired two females
which joined a third female which was on a temporary loan from a friend.
Because they are accomplished climbers and escape artists, and small enough to be vulnerable to damage by crows and other predators, I house my pancake tortoises indoors, with supervised visits to the yard to graze on grass. Indoors,
they are kept in 2 by 2 foot terraria. The floors of the terraria are covered with rabbit pellets. Plastic planters,
cut in half lengthwise and laid on the substrate, provide sleeping/hiding places. Large flat rocks are included to
make the environment more stimulating. I used to provide a more elaborate set up, including rocky caves, but, because
the rocks slipped during an earthquake, I switched to a simpler arrangement using the plastic flowers pots. The
simpler set-up is also easier to keep clean. Although I usually advocate housing all turtles outdoors, I advise
caution with pancake tortoises. Due to their acrobatic proclivities, a completely screened-in enclosure is essential.
I am aware of two separate reports of pancake tortoises being killed by dogs, and at least four cases of them escaping
My animals are most active in the mornings and this is when I feed them. Pancake tortoises are sociable animals,
and they seem to do well when housed in groups in captivity. Thus, the appetite of one shy, slowly growing yearling
who had been kept in isolation was clearly stimulated when I housed him with the adults. Whenever the adults ate, the
yearling would also eat, and his growth rate accelerated tremendously.
The cages are lit with wide-spectrum fluorescent lights (usually Sylvania 50 or Vitalite lamps), plugged into timers to regulate day length. The cages are located in a room with a background temperature of 70°-80°F in the
winter, and 80°-90°F during the summer. Additional heat is provided from colored incandescent bulbs mounted in
aluminum reflectors that are placed over one corner of the cages to provide hot spots (up to 100°F) during the day
where the animals bask before and after eating. The hot spots are located away from the sleeping quarters. This
arrangement allows the animals to move between cooler and warmer areas as they wish.
I feed the pancake tortoises daily, alternating between a heavy and a light feeding every other day. The food is placed in the same place each time, sufficiently far enough away from the hot spot to ensure that the food does not
wilt too quickly, but close enough so that the animals can bask near the food before eating. I watch them regularly to
make sure that they are all eating. When they are offered food they almost always eat within a few minutes. If an
animal does not eat I offer it a choice piece of food by hand, which they will usually take. This helps to reassure me
of their health status, since a poor appetite in reptiles is often a sign of illness. I soak the adults in a shallow
dish of warm water once or twice a month, to allow them to drink and to stimulate bowel movements. I soak the
youngsters twice a week.
Pancake tortoises are reported to feed on fresh and dried grasses and succulents in the wild, with some seasonable variation. Claims in pet store literature that they live entirely on cacti are erroneous (contrary to popular belief,
Africa has no native cacti). I offer my animals a varied diet consisting of coarsely chopped green leafy vegetables
(usually two or more from curly endive, dandelion, hibiscus leaves, tree mallow, escarole, romaine and grass) and one
or more items from the following: green beans, grated squash, grated carrots, grated sweet potato, grated prickly pear
pads (nopales), and hibiscus, rose or dandelion flowers. I mix water-softened horse chow or rabbit pellets, to
increase the fiber content of the diet, and powdered calcium carbonate (crushed limestone) with the food every day. I
add a sprinkling of vitamins (Superpreen or Reptivite) to the food mix as a supplement, no more than once a month. The
tortoises seem to enjoy gnawing on the tough fleshy stems of leafy vegetables, which may help to keep their beaks in
trim. I offer them fruit (apples, ripe strawberries or whatever is in season in my yard) on rare occasions only.
Courtship occurs among my animals throughout the year but is particularly frequent during the spring and early summer. Compared to other species, the courtship does not seem to be particularly sophisticated in pancake tortoises.
The male will chase down a female and then mount her. If unsuccessful in chasing down the female, the large male will
attempt to mount one of the smaller males, and occasional scuffles will break out. However, these are of a short
duration and do not usually involve pursuit, biting or physical injury. I have never seen the smaller males attempt to
mount a female in the presence of the large male, but they will do so when he is removed.
The rather large eggs are usually laid one, and rarely two, at a time, but the females can lay up to 5 times a
season. This summer, I have had 3 eggs from one of the females over a 4 month period. Just prior to laying, my females
become unusually active. Besides the typical tortoise behavior of digging trial nests in the substrate, one to three
days prior to laying their eggs all three females have made persistent attempts to climb on top of the flower pot
"caves". This behavior is so unusual that I find it predictive of laying. Since all three females do this, even though
they are housed separately, it suggests to me that perhaps in the wild females move to higher ground to lay their
Reported incubation times for pancake tortoise eggs are long, and have varied from 99 to 237 days. I have had a total of 6 eggs from the three females. The first two eggs were abnormally elongated and infertile. Low fertility
seems to be a problem experienced by many other keepers. The eggs laid by the other two females this summer are still
incubating. I am hopeful for a successful hatch later this year.
Darlington, A. R. & Davis, R. B. (1990) Reproduction of the pancake tortoise, Malacochersus tornieri,
in captive collections. Herpetological Review 21: 16-18.
Loveridge, A. & Williams, E. E. (1957) Revision of the African tortoises and turtles of the Suborder Cryptodira.
Bulletin of the Museum Comparative Zoology 115: 283-294.
Wilke, H. (1983) Breeding the pancake tortoise, Malacochersus tornieri, at the Frankfurt Zoo. International Zoo
Yearbook, 23: 137-139.
Originally published in the Tortuga Gazette 28(11): 1-3, November 1992