African spurred tortoises (Geochelone sulcata), also called sulcata tortoises, are large, herbivorous turtles native to sub-Saharan Africa. The largest continental turtle species in the world, sulcatas are known to reach 200 pounds or more and exceed 30 inches from tongue to tail. Tortoises of all species can be tricky to feed, and this is especially true with a grazing species like the sulcata. Providing an improper diet can lead to a variety of health problems including gout, renal failure and obesity.
Grass should form the bulk of a captive sulcata's diet. Strive to provide 75 percent of the tortoises diet from pesticide- and herbicide-free grass. Fresh-cut Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon) is a great choice and is even historically native to Africa. Lawn fescue (Festuca arundinacea) is another good option and is a common species on residential lawns. When the weather permits, it is advantageous to take your tortoise outside to graze on the grass. Never leave the tortoise outside unattended.
Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia sp.) pads are affordable food that sulcatas eagerly consume. It is critical that you remove any spines, if present; some varieties are available without spines, and they are worth the additional expense. Another option is to burn the spines off with a small flame, but be sure the pads aren't hot when you offer them to your turtle.
Various species of clover are excellent for sulcata tortoises, who enjoy the leaves and flowers of the plant. Be sure no pesticides or other chemicals have been applied to any clover that you allow your sulcata to eat. As with grass, you can take your tortoise outside for clover if it grows naturally near you. In addition to the exposure to sunlight, the turtle will also get a bit of exercise.
A variety of greens, like collard, mustard and turnip greens, are dietary staples for many turtle species. They are not recommended, however, for grazing species like sulcatas. The water and oxalic acid content of these foods can be detrimental to the long-term health of sulcatas; offer these foods once per week at the most. Feed carrot tops, radish tops and parsley in small quantities.
Variety ensures your sulcata receives all of the vitamins and minerals he needs. For your sulcata, the bulk of whose food should be grass, it is acceptable to offer occasional treats like fruit and flowers. Hibiscus flowers, dandelion flowers and roses are acceptable. Fruits are very high in water and sugar, so it's imperative to limit the amount offered; but you can offer a strawberry, a melon bites or a bit of tomato occasionally. The sulcata loves these items, which you can use as a lure when you need to coax the big turtle to move.
Commercial foods are appealing to many sulcata keepers; they offer unparalleled convenience and usually smell appealing to both the keeper and the kept. However, the jury is out regarding the long-term effects of a diet based on a high percentage of commercial tortoise chow. Soy- or corn-based diets are not recommended for a turtle. Some turtle experts eschew these foods entirely, others recommend caution when incorporating them. You can certainly feed these foods on rare occasions, and they are good to have around for times when you can't access your pet's typical food. But restraint is necessary. In practice, the costs associated with these foods will preclude their use for all but the smallest animals; the cost of feeding an adult tortoise on a diet such as these would be astronomical.
Things to Avoid
Avoid feeding a sulcata some food items entirely. Never give your sulcata animal-based proteins, including insects, fish or mice. Sulcatas get all of the protein they need from the grasses and other plants in their diet. Avoid legumes, nuts and beans, as they have too much protein for the health of your turtle. Cooked or prepared human foods have no place in a sulcata diet. Processed human food will invariably have too much protein, sugar, salt and fat to be appropriate for your pet tortoise.
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