With its flat shell, soft plastron and habit of fleeing rather than withdrawing into its shell when disturbed, the pancake tortoise (Malacochersus tornieri) rates as one of the oddest of all chelonians. The most distinctive feature is the very flat but often beautifully patterned carapace. There are large pliable or soft areas on the plastron, where the scutes overlie large fontanelles or partial gaps between the bony plates. Pancake tortoises are small, typically reaching a carapace length of about 6 inches (maximum 7 inches) and a weight of about 1 lb. Mature males have much longer and thicker tails than females. In my experience, tail size has not been a reliable indicator of gender in these tortoises until they have reached about 5 inches in length.
Pancake tortoises occur in the wild on rocky hillsides (known as kopjes) in parts of Kenya and Tanzania (including the famous Serengeti National Park) in East Africa, at elevations of 100-6000 feet. Because of the separation of the kopjes, they live in isolated groups. They are excellent climbers, and make their homes under rocks, in rocky crevices (hence the alternative name crevice tortoise), or in small caves. When alarmed or to escape predators pancake tortoises will run into narrow cracks in the rocks, and use their front legs to tightly wedge themselves in. Although their pliable plastron allows these tortoises to "inflate" themselves to increase their thickness, earlier claims that they can inflate and wedge themselves in rocky cracks "chuckwalla style" are now believed to be untrue. Although they do not appear to hibernate, they may estivate during the hottest months (January and February). Although the biology of the wild tortoises is still poorly understood there is some evidence that their social behavior also sets them apart from most other chelonians in that they may occur in fairly large aggregates.
Collection for the pet trade is probably the major threat to their continued survival in the wild. Their curiosity value, combined with their small size, has fueled large scale collection of these tortoises for the pet trade and they are commonly seen for sale in local pet stores. Unfortunately, few private individuals have bred pancake tortoises, and captive bred pancake tortoises are rarely available. This year, the Tulsa Zoo reported the first successful second generation hatching.
Pancake tortoises seem to be very adaptive, and with suitable care and attention can thrive in captivity. I have 4 males - a mature adult, 2 juveniles that I raised from hatchlings which I have had for several years, and a recently acquired fourth juvenile who was found wandering in the San Fernando Valley. Earlier this year I acquired two females which joined a third female which was on a temporary loan from a friend.
Because they are accomplished climbers and escape artists, and small enough to be vulnerable to damage by crows and other predators, I house my pancake tortoises indoors, with supervised visits to the yard to graze on grass. Indoors, they are kept in 2 by 2 foot terraria. The floors of the terraria are covered with rabbit pellets. Plastic planters, cut in half lengthwise and laid on the substrate, provide sleeping/hiding places. Large flat rocks are included to make the environment more stimulating. I used to provide a more elaborate set up, including rocky caves, but, because the rocks slipped during an earthquake, I switched to a simpler arrangement using the plastic flowers pots. The simpler set-up is also easier to keep clean. Although I usually advocate housing all turtles outdoors, I advise caution with pancake tortoises. Due to their acrobatic proclivities, a completely screened-in enclosure is essential. I am aware of two separate reports of pancake tortoises being killed by dogs, and at least four cases of them escaping from yards.
My animals are most active in the mornings and this is when I feed them. Pancake tortoises are sociable animals, and they seem to do well when housed in groups in captivity. Thus, the appetite of one shy, slowly growing yearling who had been kept in isolation was clearly stimulated when I housed him with the adults. Whenever the adults ate, the yearling would also eat, and his growth rate accelerated tremendously.
The cages are lit with wide-spectrum fluorescent lights (usually Sylvania 50 or Vitalite lamps), plugged into timers to regulate day length. The cages are located in a room with a background temperature of 70°-80°F in the winter, and 80°-90°F during the summer. Additional heat is provided from colored incandescent bulbs mounted in aluminum reflectors that are placed over one corner of the cages to provide hot spots (up to 100°F) during the day where the animals bask before and after eating. The hot spots are located away from the sleeping quarters. This arrangement allows the animals to move between cooler and warmer areas as they wish.