Pancake Tortoise (Malacochersus tornieri)

I was looking for a turtle or tortoise to blog about today and one jumped out at me: the pancake tortoise. How could I not find out more about an animal named that? Well, I guess if I went and made a batch of pancakes like I really wanted to, I wouldn’t have time to research pancake tortoises. But I resisted the urge to indulge my sweet tooth, and so this blog post was born.

Pancake tortoises live in Africa, ranging from southern Kenya to northern and eastern Tanzania. They require crevices for protection, so they are found on kopjes, or rocky hillsides. The pancake tortoise’s main habitat occurs in arid areas with lots of nice dry scrubs.

A nice picture showing just how flat pancake tortoises can be.  Source: www.tortoisesupply.com

A nice picture showing just how flat pancake tortoises can be.
Source: http://www.tortoisesupply.com

The main distinguishing feature of the pancake tortoise is it’s very flat and thin shell (which is where the funny name comes from). Pancake tortoises grow up to 18 cm, with a brown top shell and yellow under shell. The shell is light and thin, partially due to holes in the shell bones. This gives the tortoise extra agility and speed, something you usually don’t think of when you think of tortoises. One tortoise was measured going 18 m/min, which isn’t too shabby for a tortoise. Of course, the trade-off of this added speed is that the shell doesn’t give much protection; pancake tortoises prefer to run and hide in crevices rather than rely on their shell to save them.

A pancake tortoise happily staying near a rock crevice.  Source: clubfauna.com

A pancake tortoise happily staying near a rock crevice.
Source: clubfauna.com

Once they make it into their nice cosy crevice, the tortoise prevents itself from being removed by wedging itself in. Some of the ways it does this is by inflating its lungs and bracing itself against the rocks with its hind legs. Somehow that doesn’t sound very comfortable, but hey, if it works for the tortoise, that’s all that matters. Crevices are very important to pancake tortoises. These animals very rarely seen far from their crevice, and often spend large amounts of time within the safety of their homes. Sometimes crevices are shared, with up to eleven tortoises found in one crevice. Many tortoises have a preference for their crevice, and will use the same space year after year.

Because of their strange and unique appearance, pancake tortoises are highly desired in the pet trade. This has led to a decrease in their population, putting them on IUCN’s vulnerable list. As of yet, there are no captive breeding programs that supply pancake tortoises for the pet trade, so if you’re buying one it’s probably wild caught, and most likely illegal. So try to resist the urge to go out and buy one of these funny-looking guys, and I’ll try to resist going to the kitchen and making a heap of blueberry pancakes.

Cover image source: Joan Scott

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