Animal Information

Growth and Pyramiding in the Tortoise

Pyramiding is the raising of scutes during active growth periods in tortoises. There are a few cases where pyramiding is normal, when it comes to leopard tortoises (Stigmochelys pardalis)

Turtles and tortoises have shells that vary in size, color, and shape. These shells are a protective exterior. For many years scientist thought this shell had evovled to be hard in order to prevent predation from larger animals. However, recently the talk is that the evolutionary trait was most likely to protect while in the burrow in the event of a cave in.

brown and black turtle on green grass
Photo by Wal Couyi

Sometimes environmental conditions, nutrition, diseases, and trauma can alter the appearance and effectiveness of these shells.

Turtles and tortoises top part of the are called the carapace or dorsal shell while the bottom is the plastron or ventral shell. Both parts of the shell are connected to protect the turtle’s organs and the majority of its body by what is called a bridge. Click to read more about turtle and tortoise biology.

The tortoise shell is made up of visible sections referred to as scutes.

Scutes are similar to hair and nails since they are made up of keratin.

These scutes will normally shed off as individual sections as the turtle grows and sheds their skin but the bone underneath the scutes should never be exposed. The turtle’s spine and ribs are attached to the bone that the carapacial scutes protect as well as many nerve endings.

tortoise on rock
Photo by Jose Aragones

Pyramiding is the raising of scutes during active growth periods in tortoises. As a tortoise grows normally each scute increases in size horizontally thus increasing the overall diameter of each scute and the size of the tortoise.

During normal growth, this scute enlargement will lead to smooth growth. During periods of little or no growth (such as during brumation and or hibernation) a slight ridge or ring will develop.

This ridge is often referred to as a growth ring and is thought that it can help to establish how old the tortoise is for some tortoise species. This is more of a myth.

In a tortoise that is developing pyramiding, this new growth increases the size of the scute in a vertical direction thus raising the scutes. This is not a normal process of growth or shell development. It has rarely been documented in wild tortoises.

Pyramiding doesn’t pose a problem for the tortoise unless dietary deficiencies are also present and have contributed to the pyramiding.

Extreme pyramiding in an otherwise healthy tortoise can lessen the ability of a male tortoise to mount the female thereby hindering reproduction.

Captive tortoises often show growth rates exceeding those of animals in the wild.

An excessive growth rate is suspected to lead to pathological consequences such as obesity, high mortality, gastrointestinal illnesses, renal diseases, “pyramiding”, brous osteodystrophy, metabolic bone disease, or dystocia.

closeup photo of galapagos tortoise
Photo by Magda Ehlers

Age-related growth in captive/intensively kept versus free-ranging kept herbivorous tortoise species has so far been compared only for Greek tortoises (Testudo hermanni; Zwart et al., 1997), Galapagos giant tortoises (Geoch-elone nigra; Furrer et al., 2004), spur-thighed tortoises (Testudo graeca; Lapid et al., 2005) and leopard tortoises (G. pardalis; Ritz et al., 2010).

It is very difficult to replicate a natural tortoise diet. Examples are the Sulcata and Leopard Tortoises and how they have evolved to deal with life in a semi-arid environment, where the only food available for much of the year is dry grasses and weeds.

Leopard Tortoises are known to have slight pyramiding which may help them flip over in the wild, as they are found in rough terrain.

Tortoises require a very high-fiber, grass-based diet to stay healthy. If you feed the wrong foods to your tortoise, it will grow too quickly, develop a bumpy, pyramided shell, and may develop other health problems that could drastically shorten its lifespan.

Pyramiding is a form of metabolic bone disease (MBD). It is characterized by a buildup or stacking of keratin in the scutes. In advanced cases, the shell becomes soft and flattens out

Scutes that have already exhibited pyramiding cannot be corrected; however, if conditions for shell development are corrected, the new growth can develop in a normal horizontal direction.

It appears that the most critical time for pyramiding to develop is during the first year or two of a tortoise’s life. If conditions are correct during the first year or two and pyramiding has not developed, then the chance of pyramiding developing in an older tortoise is greatly reduced even if husbandry conditions are not optimal.

Click To Watch Our Video Showing The Diet Needs Of Desert Tortoises.

 There Are Seven Common Dietary Problems For Tortoises

1. Provide enough fiber by feeding your tortoise a diet that is based predominantly on grasses with some edible weeds, leaves, and flowers. The following is our page that lists plants NOT to feed your animals as well as some safe plants to provide.

Click to read Plants Not Good For Your Animals.

2. AVOID giving your tortoise foods that contain the following on a regular basis.

  • too much protein
  • too little calcium
  • too much phosphorous
  • not enough D3

Traditionally the focus has been on protein and calcium. But the protein issue is not as simple as limiting high protein foods. Because of their matabolisim, A tortoise can be fed too much protein by feeding large quantities of low protein food.

photo of small turtle on soil
Photo by Magda Ehlers

They can also get too much by being fed a normal amount of “good” food if they are confined in a small pen with limited exercise. In the wild tortoises typically walk miles while foraging. The more exercise they get, the more protein is needed. 

Excess protein in the diet causes the shell to put down heavy layers of keratin. This results in conical scutes giving rise to the appearance of pyramids. It also puts an extra burden on the kidneys and other organs.

3. AVOID giving your tortoise fruit! Grazing tortoise species rely on beneficial bacteria in their intestines to help them digest and extract nourishment from the grasses that they eat.  

Click to read Tortoise Poop and Gut Flora.

4. Provide the right amounts of calcium and avoid foods that prevent calcium absorption. Tortoises require a great deal of calcium in their diet to help them grow healthy bones and shells.

Wild Sulcata and Leopard tortoises by example get sufficient calcium by eating the grasses that grow in the calcium-laden soils of Africa. Adding cuttlebone to the tortoise enclosure is an easy way to provide calcium.

Click to read Cuttlebone aka Cuttlefish For Your Pets.

Think about where you live and how you feed your tortoise. If you live in a semi-arid or arid area with little rainfall, the calcium levels in your local soil will be relatively high.

large sulcata tortoise crawling on ground in park
Photo by Imran Hussain

Any grasses grown in such a calcium-rich soil will also be high in calcium, so if you allow your tortoise to graze at will on grasses grown in this soil, you might not have to give your tortoise much in the way of calcium supplements.

In choosing a calcium supplement, make sure you choose one that does NOT contain Phosphorus. Calcium (CA) and Phosphorus (P) are both necessary to build healthy bone tissue. However, the phosphorus available in most food items is used much more readily by the tortoise’s body than calcium, so you really don’t need to supply any additional phosphorus to your tortoise.

Phosphorous plays a limiting role in calcium utilization.

High levels of phosphorus leads to calcium being leached from the bones.

A recent study showed that teenage girls are now showing signs of early osteoporosis. The link the issue to drinking soda which is high in phosphoric acid.

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Rep-Cal is a good calcium supplement and is available at many pet stores. However, a large bag of plain, powdered limestone (calcium carbonate) will probably cost you a lot less. You can find 50-pound bags of calcium carbonate at livestock supply stores or feed stores that sell poultry supplies.

The best way to use Rep-Cal or powdered calcium carbonate is to sprinkle a small amount lightly over the tortoise’s food on a regular basis.

While superficially it does seem to have benefited, it has its own problems. Too much calcium results in secondary deficiencies of zinc, copper and iodine, malabsorption of essential fatty acids, and formation of calcium-containing bladder stones. Lack of calcium results in soft shells that often accompany pyramiding.

Click To Watch Osmonds Group Eat RepCal.

Certain foods contain oxalic acid compounds that prevent the body from absorbing calcium from food. You should AVOID feeding your tortoise the following foods regularly because of the oxalic acids in them:

  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Broccoli
  • Mustard Greens
  • Cauliflower

5. AVOID overfeeding your tortoises. These reptiles can experience a variety of health problems when they are fed the wrong food. They also have problems when they are fed too much of the right foods.  

Overfeeding is the single biggest mistake that most tortoise keepers make. Reptiles have slower metabolisms than mammals like dogs and cats, so they really do not need to take in as much food as you might think.

You should also consider the activity level of your tortoise.

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If the tortoise stays indoors on a small tortoise table? If your tortoise is mostly sedentary, he doesn’t need to be fed every single day.

Every other day is fine, even though the tortoise may look up at you with pleading eyes in between feedings. A certain amount of “tough love” is required on your part to not give in.

6. Vitamin D3 is essential for proper calcium utilization. Tortoises produce their own vitamins naturally from exposure to ultraviolet B rays. The ideal source is from exposure to the sun.

Adding a supplement is one choice for indoor tortoises. However many calcium supplements come with D3.

It is very easy to over supplement with D3. This can result in calcification of soft tissue.

There are a number of bulbs available that provide UVB so D3 supplementation isn’t necessary.

7. Grain-based diets are often overlooked as harmful. These are the pellet food that some claim to be essential to health. They typically contain soy, wheat and or rice.

agriculture arable barley blur
Photo by Pixabay on

These are high in omega 6 fatty acids which has a negative effect on health because they have an acidifying effect which causes leaching of bone. They are high in phytates which binds calcium and other minerals. Also, they have an unfavorable ca/ph ratio and a low cal/mg ratio which has a negative impact on calcium metabolism.

Consumption of high levels of whole grain cereal products impairs bone
metabolism not only by limiting calcium intake but by indirectly altering
vitamin D metabolism.

However, There Are Some Less Obvious Reasons For Pyramiding And Rapid Growth…

If you question anything, a vet visit is an easy way to find answers.
  • Lack of exercise
  • Hydration vs dehydration
  • Being kept too at cooler temperatures
  • The humidity of the enclosure is too high or too low
  • Thyroid and parathyroid gland diseases
  • Genetic factors

Can’t You Tell The Age By Growth?

You can not count rings on a scute exactly like a tree.

Many turtle owners are undoubtedly curious as to the age of their pets. Unfortunately, short of being present when they hatch, there really is no definitive way to know how old they are.

brown tortoise on wet surface
Photo by Frans Van Heerden

There are, however, a variety of ways to approximate a turtle’s age and make some fairly educated guesses that might satisfy a pet owner’s curiosity. It’s not difficult to do, and it simply involves taking a good long look at your reptile companion, as well as its living environment.

Comparing the size of your turtle to one of the same species as an adult is good start. Smaller individuals tend to be younger but a lot of outside influences can have an effect on a turtle’s growth rate, so this simple check is by no means certain. Coates adds that “females tend to grow larger than males,” so this will also need to be taken into account.

animal reptile eye wild
Photo by Lucian Pirvu

If your turtle was bred in captivity, you can probably shave a few years off its age as turtles tend to grow much faster when their diet is rich and they are well cared for.

Turtles will only be able to breed once they reach maturity, so knowing if your turtle has ever bred can also help approximate its age. Turtles generally reach maturity between 5 to 8 years of age, and for tortoises, it can be as many as 20 years to reach full maturity.

What Is The Big Deal With Rapid Growth?

Unfortunately, an affectation of the shell can lead to serious consequences for the tortoise. It may interfere with normal lung function, which causes weakness and deformity in limbs, nail problems, arthritis, paralysis as a result of deformation of the vertebrae and even slow death.

For females, pyramiding affects the laying of eggs, also causing problems during this process.

The Only Good Thing About Rapid Growth

Despite the potential negative consequences of excessive growth, there may be one positive effect.

Because sexual maturity is a function of body size, an accelerated growth rate might lead to earlier sexual maturity and thus offspring could be produced faster (Diez et al., 2009). This might help reduce the time required for restocking populations and therefore be particularly relevant to endangered species.

The leopard tortoise Stigmochelys (Geochelone) pardalis is unmistakable due to its distinctive pattern and unique body form.

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