The Indian star tortoise (Geochelone elegans) is native to India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Thus, this species has three geographical variants: southern Indian, Sri Lankan, and northern Indian/Pakistani stars. Southern Indian stars are smaller with creamier backgrounds and richer black colors. Their colors are bright and contrasting. Sri Lankan (formerly Ceylon) stars are similar in coloring to southern Indian stars, but they tend to grow larger. Northern Indian and Pakistani stars are also larger, but darker. In addition, their dark areas can be dark brown instead of black.
In general, Sri Lankan star tortoises can only be distinguished from mainland Indian stars if their origin is known, especially when they are young. As adults, Sri Lankan star tortoises tend to be larger than southern stars.
The width of stripes or grade of pyramiding are NOT reliable indicators of location of origin. Even hatchlings from the same clutch can exhibit a variety of shell patterns. Sri Lankans may, or many not, have more "natural" pyramiding or more yellow in the markings.
The Indian star tortoise is a beautiful medium sized tortoise. Maximum length may reach 10-15" (38 cm) and maximum weight 10-15 lbs (7 kg). As adults, females are larger than males. Generally, females grow up to 10-12" and males up to 7-8”, but this varies by the individual and the native location.
The carapace (top shell) is highly domed with radiating yellow lines that form star like patterns. However, the base color of the shell is actually yellow with black or brown color over it. This yellow carapace can be seen in older individuals in shell areas where the dark color has rubbed off. Plastron (bottom shell) also has star patterns. Head and legs are cream or yellow brown with dark spots. Shell coloring and patterns vary somewhat.
Indian star tortoises are born with yellow butterfly or hair bow patterns on their shells. These butterflies develop into star shapes with growth. Indian stars also develop more stripes with age.
A lovely Indian star tortoise. This one is the Sri Lankan type.
Adult Indian star tortoise in Sri Lanka. Notice the underlying yellow shell color where the dark color has rubbed off.
The Indian star tortoise habits a wide range of xeric (dry) areas including semi deserts, grasslands, thorn scrubs, scrub forests and agricultural fields. All native areas have dry seasons lasting several months.
In Sri Lanka, these tortoises are native to the dry zone which accounts to almost 2/3 of the island. The average temperature in the dry zone stays between 80.6 °F and 86 °F (27-30 °C). The average rainfall in the dry zone is 47-71 inches (120-180 cm) per year. Most of the rain occurs during the north-east monsoon in October to December. For comparison, the average annual precipitation in Florida varies from 46 to 66 inches and Florida is a wet state.
Indian stars are active during the day (diurnal), especially mornings and afternoons. They do not hibernate and stay active year round, unless it’s very hot and dry or very cold. During rainy seasons, their activity increases.
Indian Star tortoises are calm, peaceful, and fairly shy tortoises. They can be very sensitive to stress. Over time they become more outgoing and learn to recognize their keepers. They are not aggressive and do well in small groups of their own kind.
The star patterned carapace is not only beautiful, but also provides excellent camouflage among vegetation. It's very difficult to find star tortoises in grassy areas. When I'm looking for mine, it can take a long time to locate them!
Indian star tortoises have had a reputation of being somewhat difficult to keep in captivity. In the past, this especially applied to wild caught, illegal specimens. They may have already been sick when collected, or may have became sick during transportation due to stress, cold conditions, and exposure to other tortoises and reptiles. In addition, most wild tortoises carry heavy loads of parasites.
Indian stars can be a bit delicate and sensitive to cold and long periods of high humidity in cold conditions. They are prone to respiratory problems if kept too cold and damp. Indian stars are also susceptible to pathogens carried by other tortoise species. Always keep them separately from other types of tortoises.
Nowadays, all pet star tortoises are captive bred and do well when properly cared for.
In the wild, natural populations of star tortoises, both Indian and Burmese stars, are declining rapidly due to habitat loss and illegal collecting. The Burmese star tortoise is especially vulnerable. It's one of most endangered tortoises in the world.
International trade in protected species, like star tortoises, is covered under the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES has three levels of Appendices with varying levels of protection. In 2019, the Indian / Sri Lankan star tortoise was moved from CITES App II to the most restrictive listing of App I.
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