The Biscayne Times

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Written by Janet Goodman, BT Contributor   
August 2019

Tortoises live long lives, but some are imperiled here

MPix_PetTalk_8-19ost tortoise species live between 80 and 150 years. They’re the land-dwelling reptile species of the Testudines order -- the largest terrestrial turtles. After the Galapagos tortoise and the Aldabra giant tortoise, both islanders, the African spurred tortoise (Geochelone sulcata), a.k.a sulcata tortoise, is the third largest on earth and the largest mainland tortoise, so named (Latin sulcus, meaning furrow) for the sharp scales on its legs.

According to Reptile Magazine, the male African spurred tortoise can grow to more than 200 pounds and 36 inches long. Females are half that size, averaging 90 pounds and 20 inches long. During an 80- to 100-year lifespan, it can take 20 years for a sulcata to achieve its full size.

The sulcata originates from a 250-mile-wide zone in North Africa between the Sahara Desert and the Sudan region forest called the Sahel, running from Senegal to Eritrea. Their sunny personalities make them popular in the international pet trade. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Non-Native Species Division requires only a special permit to import African spurred tortoises from another U.S. state.

Biscayne Park resident Kathy Schaefer first acquired a female sulcata 17 years ago, when it was hit by a car and placed in the Biscayne Canal by a well-intentioned person who thought it was a water-dwelling turtle. Schaefer’s brother-in-law rescued the flailing tortoise, and “Frankie” has been with the family ever since. Sexing took a few years, says Schaefer. Frankie was initially called Frank, until the female flat shell underneath became pronounced (males have a concave bottom shell to expedite mating).

Schaefer got a male companion for Frankie, whom she named Frank, and the happy couple had two clutches of about 20 eggs each. Not all of the eggs hatched, but their first clutch produced 15 babies. Two baby tortoises from separate clutches were kept and are now six and eight years old -- too young yet to tell their sex.

Five years ago, Frank started to get aggressive. He’d tuck in his head and ram Schaefer with his shell and exposed sharp scales. He was found a new home on a Homestead koi farm.

These reptiles live underground. When Shaefer’s tortoises dug a burrow under the house’s foundation, her husband built a burrow with two openings, using a culvert that would never collapse.

According to the San Diego Zoo’s website, the sulcata “is most active during the rainy season between July and October…and leaves the den to forage at dawn and at dusk. It will become inactive during extreme temperatures and will hole up in an underground den.” Says Schaefer: “If it’s below 60 degrees, they hibernate.”

Frankie and her kids eat backyard grass, supplemented with romaine lettuce, fruits, and flowers. Like a puppy for a treat, Frankie runs to Schaefer when offered an apple, papaya, or hibiscus flower.

In North America, of five native tortoise species, only one, the gopher tortoise (Gopherus Polyphemus), is found east of the Mississippi River. It is native to all 67 Florida counties. FWC lists the gopher tortoise’s Florida status as imperiled.

Under Endangered Species Act, the gopher tortoise is listed as regionally threatened “only in the portion of its range occurring west of the Mobile and Tombigbee Rivers in Alabama. In the eastern portion of its range, it is a candidate species for federal protection. It has some form of state-level protection in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, and is a state-designated threatened species in Florida.”

The gopher tortoise can live 40 to 60 years and reach 9 to 15 inches in length. FWC points out that the main threat to the species is loss of habitat from development and urbanization. Habitat degradation from suppressing natural fires also threatens the gopher tortoise, since fire reduces canopy cover and helps the growth of forage plants.

Handling and relocation of this tortoise is illegal in Florida unless done under a special FWC permit, which must be obtained before interrupting burrows.

In June, a lawsuit was dismissed that challenged a Miami-Dade Walmart development next to Zoo Miami in one of the last pine rockland ecosystems, home to the imperiled gopher tortoise and 19 other protected plant and animal species.

Asked by the BT what is the best and worst thing about owning an African spurred tortoise, Schaefer replies, “The worst thing is the poop -- big poop and a lot of it.”

The best thing is that tortoises are self-sufficient and easy to care for, she says. Hers have never needed to see a veterinarian, and only once did Frankie escape from the back yard when gardeners left the gate open (they were quickly reunited through the website Nextdoor).

“They’ll disappear into their burrow for days at a time,” she adds.


Janet Goodman is a Miami Shores-based dog trainer and principal of Good Dog Bad Dog Inc. Contact her at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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