What is the Pancake Tortoise?

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  • Written By: K.C. Bruning
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 18 November 2019
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The pancake tortoise gets its name from its unusually flat, flexible shell. It is native to South Eastern Africa, Kenya, and Tanzania. The tortoises are brown with dark lines that run down the back of their shells. Due to their unusual shape, pancake tortoises are highly desirable as captive animals for private and public purposes. If properly cared for, they typically live about 25 years in captivity.

Pancake tortoises tend to be small and light. A full-grown adult will weigh about 1 to 1.5 pounds (0.5 to 0.7 kilograms). They grow to approximately 6 inches (15 centimeters) long and 1 to 1.5 inches (2.5 to 3.8 centimeters) high.

When determining the sex of pancake tortoises, males can be distinguished from females by easily visible traits. Males are usually smaller, with thicker and longer tails. They also have less distinctive markings on their shells.

As the pancake tortoise is the only kind of tortoise with a flat, flexible shell, it is vulnerable to attack from predators. While the design of the tortoise’s shell leaves it open to danger, it also enables it to hide in small, tight areas, which gives it an extra measure of protection. The pancake tortoise’s shell is so malleable that it can bend nearly in half. It also has more flexible bones and limbs than other kinds of tortoises. A pancake tortoise can wedge itself into a hiding place so well that it can be extremely difficult to remove.


As its shell does not offer sufficient protection from many predators, most pancake tortoises will run rather than shrinking into their shells when threatened. They are adept at running, climbing, and hiding quickly. Often pancake tortoises will spend most of the day in one hiding place, where they lie stacked on top of each other.

The flat shell of the pancake tortoise also limits reproduction. Due to the lack of space, the females can usually only carry one egg at a time. On rare occasions, a female will have two eggs. The tortoises typically breed in January and February.

In the wild, pancake tortoises typically eat grass. A captive turtle will also eat kale, turnips, and collard greens. They eat foods with skin such as beans, peas, apples, and pears, as well. Particularly juicy foods such as tomatoes and cucumbers can cause stomach problems. Meat can also be problematic for pancake tortoises as it can cause overgrowth and bone and liver problems.


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