A pancake tortoise was across a dirt covered rock.
Threatened

Pancake Tortoise

Malacochersus tomieri
  • Class: Reptilia (Reptiles)
  • Order: Testudines
  • Family: Testudinae
  • Genus: Malacochersus
  • Species: tomieri

ABOUT

Flat, fast, and flexible. The pancake tortoise is unique in the tortoise family, physically and behaviorally. Their shell is unusually thin, flat, and flexible, helping make the pancake tortoise the fastest tortoise species. While most other tortoises have solid structural shells, there are many holes in the shell of the pancake tortoise, making it lightweight and agile. In fact, instead of hiding in its shell for protection, the pancake tortoise is able to quickly flee from danger. The flexibility of this shell allows pancake tortoises to crawl into narrow rock crevices, allowing them to use a habitat that is not suitable for any other tortoise. Unfortunately, these peculiar adaptations make this species sought after for the illegal pet trade, making them vulnerable to extinction.

Pancake tortoises can be preyed upon by mongooses, wild dogs, and humans. This species has a variety of adaptations to allow them to stay safe. The lightweight, flat shell allows them to escape danger quickly. When confronted by a predator, they flee to the rocky kopje area and wedge themselves into the rocks until the threat is gone. This animal relies on flexibility and speed.    

HABITAT AND DIET

This species dwells in the arid savannas and scrublands of East Africa. They also like kojpe habitat, which consists of rocky outcrops. They are found living is isolated colonies. Pancake tortoises are native to southern Kenya, and northern and eastern Tanzania. An introduced population is found in Zimbabwe.

This species of tortoise has a brown shell with vibrant yellow markings—ideal for blending into their habitat. The body of the tortoise is a light brown color. 

Pancake tortoises feast on dry grasses and most other vegetation in the wild. They will take advantage of fallen fruit, and even indulge on succulents such as aloe. At the San Diego Zoo, they eat Bermuda hay, greens such as chard and dandelion, and other root vegetables. 

FAMILY LIFE

This species is most active in the morning and early evening. This is when they venture out to find food and bask in the sun for warmth. They never stray too far away from their shelter. They only surface from rocky crevices for an hour or so at a time, to stay safe from danger. 

Breeding season is January and February each year in the wild. In a zoo setting, this varies and they may breed year-round. Females will lay one egg at a time in loose, sandy dirt from June to August. The shallow holes for incubating the eggs are about 4 inches (10 centimeters) deep.

Females are able to produce more eggs during the summer—typically four to six weeks after laying one egg. The sex of the offspring is temperature dependent. The hatchings are a mere 1 to 2 inches (2.5 to 5 centimeters) long and are independent as soon as they hatch. There is no parental care. 

AT THE ZOO

The San Diego Zoo has two male pancake tortoises that reside in the Children’s Zoo area. They serve as animal ambassadors. Individual animal ambassadors represent their species and are trained to travel off site, for special events and presentations. They help the San Diego Zoo connect the public to wildlife, and help bring awareness to the species for the ultimate goal of ending extinction.

CONSERVATION

The biggest threats to this species are habitat destruction and the illegal pet trade. Wild populations of pancake tortoises in Kenya are losing their habitat to agricultural development. In Tanzania, overgrazing of domestic cattle and goats is impacting this species. Appropriate habitat is not common or widespread; this species is classified as Vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

The physical attributes of this tortoise are so unique that, unfortunately, they are sought for the illegal pet trade. Populations harvested for the pet trade consist of juveniles, thereby isolating populations in the wild.

Fortunately, protective measures were taken; and in 1981, Kenya banned the export of pancake tortoises without written permission from the Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources. Coordinated captive breeding efforts are underway in European zoos. Here, animal care staff ensure that the eggs are incubating at the proper temperature for the gender needed for the growth of this species.

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Life Span

Up to 35 years in zoos; about 25 years in the wild

YOUNG

Number of eggs laid: 1

Incubation period: 4 to 6 months

Parental care: None

SIZE

Length: 6 to 7 inches (15 to 17.7 centimeters)

Weight: 1 pound (453 grams)

FUN FACTS

When these tortoises hatch, they have a domed shell, like all other tortoises. However, as they grow, their shell flattens—staying true to the species' name. 

This is the fastest of all the tortoise species. Thanks to their lightweight shell, these tortoises are able to escape danger quickly. 

 

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