Keeping Reptiles Newsletter
  Issue 10 September 2007
Basic Tortoise Care Revisited - Part 3
In this Issue

by William Ness

Part III - Heating and Lighting


Heating And Lighting: Heating and lighting are two areas that can go hand in hand. Most tortoises probably benefit from full-spectrum lighting. It is possible that tortoises housed outside during the summer may get sufficient UV exposure to last through the winter, especially if they are adults. This whole area of UV needs and appropriate sources is much debated.

In the past, fluorescent lighting has been the only source of indoor full spectrum lighting, but I understand that there are now incandescent full spectrum bulbs available. In addition to full spectrum light, the tortoises need a heat source. I like to use a combination of top and bottom heat sources. During the day I run spotlights or other incandescent lights of a appropriate wattage to provide hot spots of about 90+ degrees and maintain ambient temperatures of about 80-85 degrees for Elongated, Redfoot, Leopard (Geochelone pardalis), Russian (Testudo horsfieldii), and Pancake (Malacocherus tornieri) tortoises.

These lights are controlled by rheostats so that seasonal adjustments can be made without changing light bulbs. Bottom heat is provided by several means. I use human heating pads set on low or similarly designed reptile heating pads located under a shallow cover made of 1/4 paneling or tile board with one by two 1 by 2 inch wood strips around the sides to form a sort of inverted cookie pan. The tortoises readily climb onto these low platforms. A similar heating box can be made from 12 or 16 inch wide Flexwatt panels.

If the cage floor is thin enough to allow sufficient heat transfer a heating devise can be placed directly under the cage. I have not yet had tortoises chew on cables, but the operative word is "yet." As a precaution I have developed ingenious ways of protecting any electrical cords located inside the pens. Unfortunately, I do not have enough space to describe these marvelous devices in the scope of this article.

Part IV - Water:

Water is provided by one of several ways. A container large enough for the tortoise to crawl into and soak may be left in the pen at all times. However, the tortoise is certain to crawl in and foul the water as soon as you replace the fouled water with clean. Then, the tortoise will crawl out and drip water all over your substrate making a general mess. A hidden hazard with this method is that a clumsy tortoise may tip over in the water bowl and drown. An alternative method is to use a small bowl that may be kept full of clean water at all times. If the bowl is too small for the tortoise to crawl into theoretically you
reduce the chance of the tortoise defecating in the bowl.

Unfortunately the tortoise does not know this and will crawl over the bowl, pause at the appropriate time, and foul the water. A practice that is used by many tortoise keepers is to not keep any water in the pen at all, but instead take the tortoise to water on a periodic basis. A good soaking in warm water once a week will provide adequate moisture for many tortoises and the warm water often acts as a mild laxative and keeps many messes out of the cage.

Part V - Diet:

Diet is the subject of much debate and trial and error. Some practices that seem to contradict published guidelines work extremely well. I have read in numerous articles the importance of limiting the protein intake of tortoises to promote good normal shell development, yet one of the largest producers of Leopard Tortoises says he feeds his babies nothing but monkey chow for the first year and he has a lower mortality rate on
this diet than with anything else he has tried. Generally, depending of course on the species, a diet high in a variety of greens with a good mixture of vegetables and some fruit is desired. Any mixture can be lightly sprinkled with good quality vitamins, but be careful to not overdo vitamin supplements. In the summer many tortoises can be grazed it the backyard if it is chemical and predator free. One note of caution in grazing tortoises: tortoises are not efficient chewers and if allowed to graze on long uncut grass may develop an impacted digestive tract.

Quantity and quality are both factors in proper shell and bone development in tortoises. I have two female Elongated Tortoises that are captive hatched litter mates. They have been housed together and offered the same diet (which has varied over the years) since hatching. For some reason one tortoise does not consume as much food as the other. This "finicky" eater is a little bit smaller than the "chow hound" but more significantly has a much smoother and more natural appearing shell. A diet full of all the "good stuff' fed on a daily basis may not be as healthy as one that has a higher "roughage" content such as dandelion leaves and other greens.

I encourage other members who have had success or lack of success with various diets to write a short summary of those experiences and submit them to the MHS Newsletter. This is an ideal forum for us to learn from each other's experiences and further the dvancement of the inexact science/art of tortoise keeping.

Boycott, Richard C. and Bourquin, Ortwin. 1988. SOUTH AFRICAN TORTOISE BOOK. Southem Book Publ. Ltd. Cape Town, South Africa.


Emst, Carl H. and Barbour, Roger W. 1989. TURTLES OF THE WORLD. Smithsonian Institution Press. Washington, DC.

Highfield, Andrew C. 1990. KEEPING AND BREEDING TORTOISES IN CAPTIVITY. R&A Publ., Ltd. Somerset, England.

Highfield, Andrew C. 1994. TORTOISE TRUST GUIDE TO TORTOISES ~ TURTLES. Carapace Press. London, England.

Originally published in the Minnesota Herpetological Society Newsletter, Vol.16, No.1, January 1996.


  1. Basic Tortoise Care Revisited - Part 3
  2. There's a reason for it, stupid.
  3. In the News
  4. Tell Us What You Think
  5. Feedback and Updating

Other Issues

Other Articles & Resources


There's a reason for it, stupid.

by Mark Chapple

I'm fairly embarrassed about this story and probably shouldn't let you know what a dumba** I can be. Basically it's a pretty stupid mistake, and one that I should have been able to sort out in a couple of minutes but, hey, we all make 'em.

My bearded dragon went into hibernation when the weather dramatically cooled and he detected the change in temperature. I had dropped the temperature of the heat mat and also turned off the light and he was happily snoozing on.

Likewise the snakes had drifted off and all was happy in herpville "hiber nation".

A couple of weeks later the bearded dragon suddenly woke up and the snakes seemed unnaturally active. The snakes would not feed but were still far too busy for hibernating snakes.

I was a bit baffled by this seemingly odd behavior. What was going on? I checked the thermostats and they had been turned down, but I turned them down a bit more to be sure.

I went and bought some crickets and the dragon happily ate them but I was still a bit confused as to why he woke up and why the snakes were active. Basically I accepted that it was happening and there must be something going on but I couldn't seem to make sense of it.

This was quite annoying as I thought they had another month or so at least to go before they needed to wake up.

One Saturday, as I was feeding the dragon, I leaned forward to look towards the back of the cage as I could feel a lot of heat. That was odd. There was a panel heater there but it was never turned on - I was convinced I had even checked it the other day when I first became suspicious.

Sure enough, there was the problem, the panel heater had been turned on and left on, apparently for about three weeks. And, to make matters worse, I'm pretty sure I was the one who turned it on for a few minutes one night when I was watching a film. There are two panel heaters in the room and I normally turn the other one on when I need some heat.

Last week I got my electricity bill and, no surprises here, it was about $120 or so more than it should have been. Ouch on two fronts really. I should have known.

My herps were active and not behaving as expected and, while I knew something was not right, I was too preoccupied to seriously look into it at the time. I now know why.

Working out your animal's behavior is important and you do need to be aware of changes and then try to determine the issue because, as always, there's a reason for it, stupid.

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In the News

Goanna Extinction Possible

But these Toadlets OK...

Maybe we can save ourselves a bit more...

Snake's hide on the line protecting these shoes...

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