Thigh Desert Tortoise

African Spur

Name: African Spur Thigh Desert Tortoise

Scientific: Geochelone sulcata

Family: Testudinidae

Relatives: Galapagos tortoise, Aldabra Giant Tortoise

Environment: Desert, Bushland

Origin: Africa       

Life-span: up to 80 years

Size: 130-220 lbs

Fast Facts

African spur-thigh desert tortoises are known by many names.  They are commonly called the African spurred tortoise, grooved tortoise, sulcata, or simply the spur tortoise.  Their name refers to the large overlapping scales on their front legs. 

As a desert tortoise, the spur-thigh has many adaptations that allow them to survive in very dry environments.  They have an extremely thick skin to help retain the moisture the tortoise absorbs from the food it eats, thus eliminating the need for a consistent water source.


     1.     Largest mainland tortoise

     2.     3rd largest tortoise in the world

     3.     Spur-thighs do not “drink” water often

African spur-thigh desert tortoise are regarded as a symbol of virtue, happiness, fertility, and longevity in Senegal.  

About Me

African spur-thigh desert tortoises are the world’s largest mainland tortoise, and the third largest in the world.  The male spur-thigh may grow to be almost 3 feet in length and 220 pounds.  Female spur-thighs are slightly smaller, measuring up to 2 feet in length and 130 pounds. The simplest way to identify gender of a spur-thigh is to look at its under-shell.  A male will have a concave section in the middle of the shell, whereas a female will have a relatively flat under-shell.  The concave section of the male’s shell fits over the female’s shell to aid breeding.  

The African spur-thigh desert tortoise is found in one of the driest environments in the world.  They have special characteristics to allow them to thrive in this extremely harsh habitat.  To help them blend into their surroundings, their shell is light brown or tan to disguise them from potential desert predators.  The spur-thigh name reflects the coniform spurs on the tortoise's forearms used for digging their burrows.  When the tortoise retreats into its shell, these spurs also cover and protect its head. Much of the tortoise's body is protected by its shell.  The skin that is exposed is incredibly thick.  The density of their skin helps to limit the amount of moisture lost through their skin into the air.  In the desert, water sources are not readily available.  For this reason, spur-thigh tortoise rarely drink water.  Instead of depending on liquid water for hydration, spur-thigh tortoises get the moisture they need from the food they eat.  They consume large amounts of fresh vegetation: grasses, flowers, fruits, vegetables, and brush.  It is also believed that the spur-thigh tortoise may absorb moisture from the ground through their skin or shells.  They will dig burrows up to 3 feet deep, allowing them access to ground moisture levels.  The heat of the day is spent in these burrows, and even permanent sleeping burrows are dug and occupied by two or more tortoises.  These burrows are where the female spur-thigh will lay 15-30 eggs.  The offspring hatch, and then crawl to the surface.


Traditionally African spur-thigh tortoises have been used by tribes in Senegal as cultural symbols of virtue, happiness, fertility, and longevity.  Other nomadic tribes eat the tortoise as part of their diet.  Even as far away as Japan, people use parts of the spur-thigh in traditional medicines.  Most recently, they have been captured and sold into the international pet trade.  This has placed the spur-thigh in a susceptible position in the wild.  It is unknown how much revenue is generated from the African spur-thigh desert tortoise in the pet or food trade. However, it is certain that in the wild they are slowly diminishing due to human influence.