10 interesting facts about the leopard tortoise

The leopard tortoise is a member of the Small 5 – and there's a lot more to know about it besides.

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  • The leopard tortoise is a member of the Small 5 (along with the rhino beetle, the red-billed buffalo weaver, elephant shrew and the antlion)
  • The leopard tortoise eats plant matter, but also old hyena scat (coprophagia). They also gnaw on bones (osteophagia). The high calcium content in both provide essential minerals to keep the tortoise’s shell in good condition, and to aid eggshell production
  • Captive leopard tortoises can live for 75 years
  • The base of the shell is called the “plastron” and its shape differs between the sexes. A female has a flat plastron, while a male has a concave one. This is so that the male can mount the female during mating, his concave plastron fitting around the shell of the female
  • The individual panels of the shell are called “scutes”. These scutes grow in conjunction with growing seasons and thus one can gauge the age of a leopard tortoise by counting the ridges, just like the rings on a tree. Due to wear and tear, however, the interior ridges are often worn away and thus estimating a specific age is impossible
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  • Leopard tortoises are the only tortoise not to have a nuchal shield (the protective scute above the neck). This means the leopard tortoise is the only member of the family that can raise its head, and thus is the only member that can swim
  • The sex of a tortoise hatchling is determined by the temperature at which the egg is incubated. Eggs incubated between a temperature range of 26-31°C will be male, and 31-34°C will be female
  • The leopard tortoise stores water during the dry winter months in a “bursa sac”. This reserve is used for hydration and also to moisten the baked ground, to make it easier for the female to dig a nest for her eggs
  • One must never pick up a leopard tortoise (or any tortoise) during the winter months, as it may eject its stored urine and water as a deterrent. Due to the distance it must cover to replenish this lost moisture, the tortoise could die of dehydration
  • The scientific name of the leopard tortoise is Geochelone pardalis. The species pardalis comes from the Latin word pardus, which means “spotted”, referring to the patterning of the carapace (shell). The scientific name of the leopard (Panthera pardis) and the giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalus) also reflect their spotted colouration