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Pyramiding & Star Tortoises

- Natural or poor husbandry? -

geochelone elegans

Indian Star tortoise, Sri Lankan type (Geochelone elegans)

Metabolic bone disease

In captivity, many young, growing tortoises become "lumpy" looking due to less than ideal husbandry. Various reasons have been suggested as possible explanations for this, for example, too much protein in the diet, too much food, not enough calcium, lack of sunlight or vitamin D3, not enough exercise, and too dry environmental conditions leading to chronic dehydration.

Tortoises that have flattened, extremely bumpy and unnatural looking shells have metabolic bone disease (MBD). MBD is alarmingly common among captive tortoises due to poor nutrition and husbandry practices.

In advanced cases, the whole tortoise looks grossly deformed. The carapace typically slopes down towards the tail, jaws may be deformed, and limbs may be swollen. The tortoise may be lame and unable to lift itself off the ground.

If you are acquiring a tortoise, be sure to research the proper diet and care for your species to help prevent this devastating and debilitating condition.

Now, Indian Star tortoises can have MBD if they are not properly cared for, but many of them also have slightly conical scutes without exhibiting any other signs or deformities of MBD.

Indian Star tortoises

Indian / Sri Lankan Star tortoises (Geochelone elegans) may have smooth or bumpy (pyramided) carapaces. Other than lumpiness caused by poor captive conditions, no one seems to know yet for sure why some of them have bumpier shells than others. Explanations for shell lumpiness in the G. elegans range from genetics to the effects of geographical location to variations in diet.

Many believe that Sri Lankan Stars, and possibly Stars from north western India, tend to be more susceptible to shell coning than Indian Stars from southern India. In Stars, females and dominant tortoises may be more pyramided as well. This more extensive pyramiding is possibly due to their faster growth.

Some Star tortoise breeders have described how Sri Lankan Stars will often pyramid (grow conical scutes) to some degree no matter how one cares for them. Even if they are raised under identical conditions as smoother growing Indian Stars.

Tortoise keepers are debating if the lumpiness truly is a natural condition among Star tortoises or caused by environmental factors. However, most reptile books, new and old, describe the Indian Star tortoise typically being somewhat pyramided with more or less conical scutes.

The conical scutes in Indian / Sri Lankan Star tortoises look similar, but not identical, to diseased pyramiding (MBD). However, even this is debatable. Some people say all pyramiding in tortoises is a form of MBD, while others differentiate between "natural" pyramiding (as in Stars) and MBD.

Caution though, not every pyramided Indian / Sri Lankan Star is a healthy tortoise with "naturally" conical scutes. The tortoise may actually have MBD due to improper care. Learn what a sick tortoise with MBD deformities looks like, so that you can differentiate the two.

a.) Indian Star tortoise shell descriptions - in books

geochelone elegans

Reptilia And Batrachia: The Fauna Of British India Including Ceylon And Burma, Boulenger 1890. (US-PD)

elegant tortoise

Elegant tortoise. The Royal Natural History: Reptiles, amphibians, fishes, the lowest vertebrates and their allies, Volume 5 of The Royal Natural History, Richard Lydekker, 1896. (US-PD)

b.) Indian Star tortoise shell descriptions - on the web

burmese star tortoise

Peltastes platynotus [Geochelone platynota], Blyth 1863. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1870. (US-PD)

Burmese Star tortoises

Burmese Star tortoises (Geochelone platynota) are also called "flatback" tortoises, meaning they have flat and less domed carapaces. In the wild, Burmese Stars typically have smoother shells than Indian Stars, but when raised in captivity, Burmese can easily develop pyramiding just like Indians. Especially, if they are kept in too dry conditions as babies.

a.) Burmese Star tortoise shell descriptions - in books

b.) Burmese Star tortoise shell descriptions - on the web

African starred tortoises

Africa has its own starred tortoises. Tent tortoises (Psammobates tentorius), Geometric tortoises (Psammobates geometricus), and Serrated tortoises (Psammobates oculifer) have beautiful star patterned carapaces.

According to Branch (Tortoises, Terrapins & Turtles of Africa, 2008, South Africa), Serrated tortoises have slightly raised carapace scutes, Tent tortoises have flat or conical scutes depending on the subspecies, and Geometric tortoises have raised cone like scutes. In fact, the Tent tortoises were named after the conical, tent like vertebral and costal scutes. Tentorium is Latin for tent.

In photos, pyramiding in these African starred tortoises ranges from mildly raised scutes to severely conical. The appearance is very similar to that of Indian / Sri Lankan Star tortoises.

Preventing pyramiding

So far, nobody seems to know for sure how to best prevent pyramiding in captive bred and raised tortoises. However, many tortoise keepers find that adequate humidity and hydration as babies and youngsters may be the answer. High ambient humidity levels, warm & damp substrate areas for burrowing, frequent drinking, regular soaks (shallow baths), warm mistings, and humid hides are beneficial, especially during the first few years of life.

Many Star tortoise keepers raise their hatchlings in partially closed enclosures or fully closed vivariums to achieve a higher ambient humidity (up to 80+ %). Juveniles can also spend their days outdoors and then brought in to spend the night in a humid, warm enclosure.

Adequate sunshine, a suitable diet (enough fiber, nutrients, calcium etc.), sufficient exercise, and low stress environment are important for tortoises' general health. Plus, as explained above, in some Star tortoises, the "pyramided look" may possibly have a genetic component to it.

Normal vs abnormal shell growth

pyramided sulcata smooth shelled sulcata
ABNORMAL -- Sulcata with a pyramided shell. (photo by mcfung) NORMAL -- Sulcata with smooth shell growth. (photo by Sam Burt)
sulcata with a deformed shell smooth shelled sulcata
ABNORMAL -- Sulcata with a severely deformed shell. (photo by anderson14) NORMAL -- Sulcata with a smooth shell. (photo by MOKreations)

More photos of deformed shells:

  • WCT - Deformities, Improper Growth or Pyramiding? (many photos)
  • WCT - Examples of Severe Pyramiding in Geochelone sulcata (photos of extremely deformed sulcatas)

X-rays

xray of smooth carapace

X-ray of a smooth tortoise carapace (top shell)

xray pyramided carapace

X-ray of a pyramided tortoise carapace (top shell)

Links

I have not seen any cross sectional photos of Indian / Sri Lankan Star tortoises' shells online, but per Tortoise Trust (see text above under Indian Star web info), the bone of a healthy Geochelone elegans has normal bone density even if the scutes are conical. Anyone have such a photo to share? Or know of one posted on the web?

Photos of pyramided shells cut open:

Various opinions about pyramiding:

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