A guide on housing, feeding and breeding Indian Star Tortoise - Geochelone elegans
This page is devoted to housing Indian Star Tortoise (also known as Geochelone elegans) , it's another article that belongs to the "exotic pets" category (articles that aren't dedicated to aquarium fish). In case you own one or more of these beautiful creatures, you're welcome to share your experiences at the bottom of this page!
Geochelone elegans is a very unique tortoise with a distinctive shell that displays prominent markings, these markings have earned this tortoise the common name of the “Indian Star Tortoise” as they originate from the countries of India and Sri Lanka. The star markings on their carapace are very noticeable in the open but these same markings are used as a camouflage in their natural habitat where they blend in with the grassy lowlands, hiding them from predators and humans alike.
The shells of each specimen can vary greatly, some specimens will have a smoother shell surface while others have raised areas on their shells giving them a very bumpy appearance. The differences within the same species has yet to be explained but it can give the impression of two different species but they are in fact the same. It is an established fact that the specimens with the bumpier surface on their shells can expect to have a higher survival rate as it gives them a greater chance of righting themselves should they find themselves in the unfortunate situation of being toppled over.
Tortoises share one unique trait with armadillos, they are the only vertebrates that have shells and these are formed at the embryonic stage of development as the ribs, instead of curving downwards to protect the breathing organs, grow outwards from the backbone and the ribs form the framework for the shell which is completed by calcified tissue hardening to form a complete casing. The upper part of the shell is known as the carapace while the lower part of the shell is known as the plastron.
When observing adult specimens it is quite easy to sex the star tortoises as the females can grow up to 12 inches while the males level off at a maximum size of 8 inches, the males will also have an indented plastron underneath to allow the to perform the act of mating by climbing onto the back of the females and perching there without the risk of falling off.
Like all species of tortoise there are several guidelines to keeping them long term, long term with tortoises does mean that, they are a very long lived creature if kept correctly and they are also a big commitment and purchasing one of these should be considered carefully. The Indian Star Tortoise is not the hardiest of the tortoise species so it may well be worth gaining some experience of tortoise keeping with the more common and hardier species.
Unlike some other species of tortoise, it is not natural for the Indian Star Tortoise to hibernate, they cannot tolerate cooler temperature so trying to hibernate this species is not advised unlike the more common European tortoises, their temperature should be maintained throughout the year.
Housing your Indian Star Tortoise
The Star Tortoises can be housed indoors or outdoors, dependant on your local climate. Both methods are just as successful but are approached on a slightly different angle. If you are keeping your Tortoise outside then it will need an enclosed pen, this prevents your tortoise from escaping and also keeps predators out. They do require a certain amount of room to wander around, the minimum area for one adult specimen should be at least 4 square feet, this will need to be increased for more than one specimen. Use fine wire mesh or similar to allow light through and include at least one hiding place to allow your tortoise to go into if it feels the need or just needs to rest from outside activity. This can be constructed quite simply from a wooden crate or even a plastic container that has been shaped to allow entry but this is the place that your tortoise will need for security. Although tortoises do not swim in water they will require a source of water to drink, sinking a shallow bowl in the ground will suffice, the water needs to be only one inch in depth but this must be kept clean and changed on a regular basis to prevent the onset of infections. Leave one area of the pen open to catch the sunlight, tortoise do need to bask and always keep some food in their by placing greens such as vegetable leaves to give them the chance to graze.
What should be avoided are dampness in the pen, this can lead to respiratory problems and extreme cold in the night, if the temperatures do plummet in the night hours then your tortoise should be brought indoors and taken outside again when the temperature rises.
Young specimens of the Star Tortoise should not be housed outside, they need to be at least one year of age to be hardy enough to cope with outside pens.
When kept inside the most recent development is the tortoise table, these are basically pens that are elevated by legs and the sides are deep enough to prevent your tortoise from falling out and injuring itself. The size of these should also be relative to the size of your tortoise, 4 square feet is still required for an adult specimen. A substrate will be required for the bottom, this can be sterilised soil, a mixture of soil and sand or even aspen shavings which are available from most of the pet stores. This will need to be cleaned on a weekly or fortnightly basis dependant on its condition and kept dry to prevent diseases to your tortoise. They will require some form of artificial lighting to replace the suns rays, this can be simulated using a standard bulb as it will emit heat but they will also require some form of UV into the housing, using a fluorescent lamp should provide this or you can invest in a UV lamp. As outside, they will need a place to hide away and retreat from everyday life so a hide will still need to be added, a water bowl should also be provided but make sure that it is stable and shallow to prevent your tortoise from toppling it over. Cleanliness is the key here so a regular maintenance program of cleaning will need to be performed to keep your tortoise healthy and don’t forget to change the water at least every other day. It should be remembered that these species of tortoise originate from tropical climates so do not tolerate lower temperatures, adding a light source such as a daylight lamp will provide a heat source, if a temperature of at least 22 deg C cannot be maintained then it may be worth considering the investment of a heat mat below the tortoise table. This should not be the only heat source and should be run at a low temperature as providing all of the heat from below can lead to your tortoise suffering from digestive problems.
Feeding the Indian Star Tortoise
Most people know that tortoises are considered as herbivores but in the wild they will also take on a more varied diet by consuming a few insects as well as greenery. This trait does not need to be replicated in captivity and a herbivorous diet will suffice. Many keepers will offer their tortoises dried grass, fresh grass in the summer months and leaves from native plants, these can be varied with a selection of greens such as romaine lettuce, kale and even salad mixes from the supermarket. What should be avoided are canned pet foods and iceberg lettuce, these are not suitable for pet tortoises and will lead to health problems. There is a balance as to how much food should be offered, you will find that your tortoise may be at it’s most hungriest when it first wakes in the mornings but do not be tempted to overfeed, always supply just enough food as overfeeding can lead to obesity in these creatures.
As well as supplying the food, the Star Tortoise has a great demand for vitamins and a calcium supplement, especially with the females and offspring, the females need to produce strong and healthy eggs whilst the young need calcium for strong bone development. There are several vitamin compounds and calcium supplements available to purchase and these can be simply sprinkled over the food but follow the manufacturers instructions to the letter. A common practice is to leave dried cuttlefish in the enclosure to provide calcium allowing the tortoise to gnaw this at its leisure.
Breeding the Indian Star Tortoise
As mentioned above, male star tortoises have an indented plastron to allow for the mating but this is not always apparent when they are young as both sexes have straight plastron, the indentation develops as the male specimen matures. Males will also develop longer tails as they mature, mature specimens are normally at least 6-8 years of age for male specimens, females take a little longer, often at an age of about 8-12 years.
The size of the tortoise can also determine if they are ready for breeding, the absolute minimum is 4 inches for the males and 6 inches for the females. If you are keeping a group of the Star tortoise with the intention of breeding then it is best to keep more females with the males, too many males can lead to disputes, it is also known for males to try to dislodge other males from the female’s back once the mating process has been initialised.
The actual process of mating is a very slow and long drawn out process so don’t expect the tortoise to suddenly gain some unexpected gusto as the male climbs aboard the female, everything is done at a steady pace. This process can last for several hours and the two tortoises will stay in this position until completed, once the mating is over, the male will dismount and carry on as normal.
So how do you tell if the female is actually gravid? The biggest give away will be the sudden gain in weight of the female, this should be noticeable when you pick up your tortoise, she may also appear restless and start to dig into the substrate of her enclosure so now is the time to move her to a suitable nesting box that has a deeper substrate as she will need to bury her eggs.
The nesting box should be of ample size for the female to select her chosen spot for laying the eggs and the substrate ( soil will be fine), should be at least 8 inches deep.
To aid the female with the digging it can be moistened with a misting bottle and a heat mat underneath the nesting box will keep the substrate warm enough to incubate the eggs. The temperature of the substrate should be kept at about the 30 deg C mark, slightly higher may produce more female births but this is not always the case.
If you prefer you can use a commercial incubator that has vermiculite for the substrate and the eggs are partially buried in this, small cups of water placed in the incubator will keep the humidity levels up.
The incubation period is quite long, at least 90 days as the young are perfectly formed at birth, an exact replica of the adults but on a smaller scale, they normally average about 1.5 inches in size.
As expected the hatchlings are a lot more delicate than their parents and require higher humidity levels, many keepers will rear them in a glass aquarium or a plastic container with a fitted lid to aid with this. At birth the young will consume the yolk sac but once this has been digested they can be fed the same diet as their parents but make sure that it is offered in smaller, chopped portions so that they can actually consume the food.
Constantly monitor the humidity levels and keep the housing clean to prevent the risk of any infections or diseases.
The Indian Star Tortoise should only be kept by keepers who have the facilities and time to care for them correctly. They are an endangered species so with this in mind, think carefully and never impulse buy!
Always wash your hands after handling this tortoise, they can carry diseases that are detrimental to our health!
Only purchase the Indian Star Tortoise from a reputable supplier, there are many dealers that sell these creatures without a care as to where they have come from, most suppliers nowadays only sell specimens that have been captive bred from reputable breeders!