Pancake tortoise

(Malacochersus tornieri)

Habitat and Distribution: Found in dry scrub brush on rocky hills and outcroppings in Southern Kenya and Tanzania.

Size: About 7 inches long; up to 1 pound; shell height 1-1½ inches. Females are larger than males.

Wild Diet: Fresh, dry grasses, fallen fruits and flowers, and other vegetation.

Predators: Likely mongoose and other African predators (African wild dogs, lions, hyenas)

Reproduction: Pancake tortoises breed in January-February and nest in July-August. Throughout the summer, a female lays one egg at a time and buries it under a few inches of loose, sandy dirt. A female can lay multiple eggs over the course of a breeding season. The eggs hatch 4-6 months after they are buried. Hatchlings are 1-2 inches long and have domed shells, unlike their parents.

Behavior: The shells of pancake tortoises are softer and more flexible than the shells of other tortoises and therefore provide little protection, but allow great agility. When threatened, rather than withdrawing into its shell, a pancake tortoise dashes for the nearest rocky shelter. They are one of the few groups of social tortoises, sharing crevices and basking sites.


IUCN Status: Vulnerable

The major threat to the pancake tortoise is the pet trade. They may be threatened with extinction if trade is not closely controlled. 

Did you know?

  • When burrowing in a rocky shelter, a pancake tortoise can plant its spiky legs solidly into the crevice, making itself almost impossible to dislodge.
  • Because their shells are so lightweight, they are faster than thicker-shelled tortoises, and can flip themselves over quickly if they land on their backs.